THE UNDERGROUND LIBRARY: CHAPTER 2

A story about dragons, knights, and… librarians?

Skylar Deegan, Staff Writer

Shaia looked up as Daren walked into the dining room, where they’d been discussing his future over a late supper. Of course, all such discussion had ceased the moment he entered. She’d spent the argument—as it had been, since few agreed with the Bookwyrm and he wouldn’t be swayed to do anything else—alternately feeling that the Code dictated that they treat Daren kindly and wishing he’d never walked into their lives. And now, here he was.       

He entered the room looking sort of lost, like this wasn’t where he thought he’d end up. It probably wasn’t, Shaia thought wryly. He didn’t carry himself with the traditional knight bravado—the useless, senseless, I’m-better-than-you kind of attitude—though he certainly looked the part. He was huge—taller and more muscular than any other human in the room by a significant margin. It was odd to see someone so commanding look so lost. He looked like he’d had all of his certainties stripped away. Which, she supposed, he had. Many things that the knights teach their children revolve around not ending up like them—them being the librarians. Now he was seeing that they were living with the dragons, instead of being eaten or enslaved. It was enough to blow any knight’s mind.       

Shaia jolted back to herself as she realized she was staring—and that he was looking back. His dark, scared eyes held hers for just a second before they both looked away. Shaia could feel her cheeks heating, though she wasn’t sure why. After all, she hadn’t been the only one staring at him.       

Nolan came in behind Daren, and his expression was tempestuous behind his thin-rimmed glasses. Obviously, thought Shaia, he was not pleased with the current way of things. Nolan glanced her way, also, and something he saw made his eyes even darker. Shaia wasn’t sure what to make of that.       

Daren and Nolan sat as far apart from each other as they could around the small table—Daren sitting awkwardly on the edge, since his hands were still bound. A bowl of steaming potato soup and a plate of fresh salad were passed to each man. Daren’s eyes went wide when he saw the food, and he shifted uncomfortably. He looked like he wished he could eat, but his hands were tied together. Nolan, of course, tucked into his meal without a second glance at the knight. 

The Bookwyrm cleared his throat, signaling for everyone to quiet down. Not that much quieting down was necessary. There were a few who’d been whispering to each other, but most everyone was already silent in anticipation.        

“Daren, I welcome you to our humble abode,” the dragon said. His voice was rumbly and deep, and it always surprised Shaia a little when she hadn’t heard him talk for a while. “I’m sure you have many questions, but let us explain some things first.” 

Daren was staring at the Bookwyrm with a queer expression. He shot a glance at Shaia, his eyes seeming to shout, Is this really happening?        

Shaia forced herself not to laugh. She didn’t remember the first time she’d heard the great dragon speak—in perfect, well-learned grammar and syntax, no less—but she imagined it would be quite a shock.       

The Bookwyrm continued talking in his usual low, rumbling voice. “You are not a prisoner, but nor can we permit you to leave now that you know of our existence. Many knights have half-heartedly tried to storm this mountain in the past twenty years, and we’ve been able to hold them off, but we are not numerous enough to fight them if they were actually trying. If they knew of our existence, we have no doubt that they would stage a wider-scale attack that we could not withstand. So, in order to ensure the safety of all parties involved, we ask that you stay here.”

Daren obviously couldn’t fathom not going back. He seemed to want to say something, but he held his tongue.        

“You will be assigned a few librarians to help you understand our society and become better integrated in it. As I understand it, you come from a very different sort of community.” The green dragon smiled slightly, showing the edges of teeth as wide around as a man’s leg.

Daren’s eyes were wide, like he wasn’t sure if he should be scared. “Well, there weren’t any dragons where I grew up. Or anyone living in caves.” 

Salem chuckled at that, but she was one of the few. No one was sure what to think about Daren yet. He glanced at Shaia again, and she smiled at him, hoping to communicate that he wasn’t in any danger. He didn’t look reassured.

At this point, Toby stood and addressed the young knight. “We have decided that you will be under the care of Shaia Inkworth and me for the first few days.” He gestured to Shaia as he said her name. 

Daren glanced over again and nodded to her, then turned his attention back to Toby. 

“If you integrate well into our society, you will no longer need us; however, for now we request that you have at least one of us with you at all times.” He paused, contemplative. “We aren’t trying to put you on a tight leash, but we also don’t want you to stumble across the Cavern of Endless Falling or startle our herd of indoor, grass-fed ironhorns into stampeding right through our supper. For our safety as well as yours, it is best that you have a guide or two to help you until you know your way around. That way, we’ll keep the falling, dismembering, and dinner-losing to a minimum.” His blue eyes twinkling, Toby sat back down. 

Shaia chuckled with the rest, but she could tell that Daren wasn’t sure what the joke was. He looked like he was wondering if he was the one about to be dismembered. She felt a flash of pity for him. He really had no idea what was going on.

“Also,” said the Bookwyrm, “we ask you to abide by our code while you reside with us. It isn’t long, but it is the basis for how we live.” He gently picked up a scroll from the table and held it up to his eyes. He cleared his throat like he was about to read it aloud, but then he looked over at Bert and handed the scroll to him. “Please read this,” he said. 

Shaia could see the twins giving the dragon odd looks, and she understood why. The dragon always read the Code himself. Why was he asking someone else to?

Bert wasn’t happy about it, but he stood and read, “The Librarians’ Code: 

  1. Always be kind.
  2. Never judge a person by the small part of their story that you know.
  3. Violence is never a solution.
  4. Always give second chances when it comes to borrowing books—but give them the books no one ever wants to read, anyway.
  5. There is a book for every person. If they say they don’t like to read, they just haven’t found the right book yet.
  6. Listen first, then speak your mind when you have all the details.
  7. Bathe regularly. No one wants to be around you if you smell like a knight.
  8. Never raise your voice if you can avoid it.”

Bert looked expectantly at the Bookwyrm, who nodded his dismissal. He sat down. 

“As you can see, this is a much different way of living than you are used to. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to acclimate, so Toby and Shaia will assist you in following our code when necessary. Any questions?” asked the Bookwyrm. 

Daren nodded. “Yeah, a lot.” His eyes darted around nervously. “First question: If the librarians aren’t captives, why haven’t they come back to Battlenear?”

Shaia cocked her head, thinking. Going back had never felt like an option to her. They were much better off here. But then again, she hardly remembered Battlenear. 

The Bookwyrm’s expression was sympathetic. “When they got here, they didn’t want to go back, and they knew that they would have to if it was known that they were still alive and thriving. Your people had been treating them ill for quite a while, so they stayed.” He paused, then said kindly, “They are better off here.”

“Okay,” said Daren, “I don’t agree with that, but okay. Next, if I’m not a prisoner”—he turned to show his bound hands—“why am I still tied up?”

The dragon turned his great head to Nolan. “You didn’t untie him?” he asked, vaguely accusatory. 

Nolan’s cheeks tinged pink, and he quickly removed Daren’s bonds. Shaia saw Daren stiffen as Nolan came near him. Apparently Nolan had made a bad impression on him already. Shaia wasn’t surprised; Nolan was very abrasive sometimes. 

Though his hands were free, Daren still sat poised on the edge of his seat—as if readying himself for a hasty escape. “That’s much better, thank you,” he said, but his eyes were still dark with wariness. 

Shaia wished they could put him at ease somehow, but there was no good way to do so as long as he thought he was in danger, as he obviously did. 

Even so, Daren wolfed down his food with the enthusiasm of one starving to death. His manners were as good as can be expected of a knight.

In the short silence that followed, Daren’s eyes fell to his chafed wrists. He looked back up at the Bookwyrm. “What happens if I don’t follow your code?” he asked cautiously.  

This time it was Myra, Shaia’s mom, who answered. “Probably nothing too serious, depending on what you do. We’re only telling you all of this because this code is what we hold as common decency.” She smiled maternally. “We just wanted you to be informed.”

Daren nodded, deep in thought. 

“Do you have any other questions?” the Bookwyrm prompted when none were forthcoming. 

Daren startled back to the present. “Yes, I do,” he said, his eyes alight. 

Shaia got the feeling that they weren’t going to like what he had to say. She was right.

“Why aren’t you treating me the same way you did everyone else?” Daren asked accusingly. “I could have been well on my way home by now, but instead… I’m here. In front of a scarily large group of dragons and librarians, who, I might add, are supposed to be dead!” 

The room went dead silent at his words—the spoons and forks stopped clinking, and some stopped breathing—but Daren either didn’t notice or didn’t care. This seemed to have been building within him for a while. 

“You’ve told me what’s going to happen, but you haven’t told me why. You haven’t told me much of anything except rules. Rules, regulations, and babysitters. I’m almost a knight, for crying out loud! I’m not going to be a danger to myself and others simply by the fact of my existence, and I will not blindly and recklessly walk into dangers!” Daren’s face was red with frustration. He paused, breathing hard. 

Nolan took the opportunity to interject. “It seems to me that that’s exactly what you’ll do if left unsupervised,” he said rudely. “That’s what all knights do, isn’t it? Walk recklessly into danger with no thought of the cost to themselves or others?”

Marc set a calming hand on Nolan’s shoulder, but the younger man shook him off.

“Of course not,” Daren retorted. “And aren’t librarians supposed to be quiet and kind and anti-inflammatory? You seem to be better at inflaming the situation than calming it down.”

Nolan jumped to his feet. “That was uncalled for.” 

Daren stood as well, toppling his chair with a bang. They were both yelling now. “This whole situation is uncalled for! I don’t want to be here; I didn’t want to come here in the first place. I just want to go home!” 

Shaia cut in before either of them could say anything. “Both of you stop. This won’t solve anything.” She glanced at Nolan, who was still flushed with anger. “Sit down, Nolan,” she told him. “The fight is over.” 

Daren looked upset; Shaia felt bad for him. She would have him go home, as soon as they could get him there. Then everything could go back to normal, like it was before. In fact… 

“Why can’t we send Daren home?” she asked the Bookwyrm. “That’s what we did with all the others.” 

Nolan snorted, speaking before the great dragon had a chance to respond. “The others didn’t know we’re here. How do we know he won’t go crying to the Brawny One to have the mountain stormed? You know there’s no way we could survive that.”

Sonya turned her weathered face toward him. “Nolan, why don’t you go take a walk around the mountain? Cool your head a bit.” 

Nolan slumped down in his seat. “I’m fine, Sonya.”

“That wasn’t a question,” Sonya told him firmly. “Go. We’ll call you if we need you.”

Nolan pressed his lips together as if holding back a retort, got up, and walked out of the room. Daren watched him go with an unreadable expression. 

Silence followed Nolan’s departure. Daren’s face had shut down; he obviously wasn’t going to share anything else personal. 

“To answer your questions,” Myra told him finally, “the Bookwyyrm had a vision that you would help us. That we would need you. His Sight is difficult to understand at the best of times, but this seemed fairly clear.” She hesitated, deliberating. “I won’t give you all the details, but that is the reason. We can’t force you to stay here. We aren’t forcing you to stay here. You can leave if you wish, but it may very well be to our detriment. Your kind have only left us in peace for this long because they don’t know we’re here. One dragon isn’t much of a threat—at least, they don’t think so—but several dozen dragons and ten outcasts of society who had been living in secrecy for twenty years would surely bring more trouble to our door than we can handle.” 

Daren nodded to her cautiously. “I suppose that’s fair. You are a bit intimidating,” he told the Bookwyrm with a wry grin. More seriously, he added, “I will stay for two weeks. After that… I don’t know. But three weeks, I can give you.”

The huge dragon smiled. “Two weeks is a good start. Shaia, Toby, why don’t you show Daren to the Hollow? Help him get it set up comfortably.” 

Daren walked behind the middle-aged blond man—Toby, he thought—and the girl, Shaia, surreptitiously rubbing his sore wrists. This whole encounter was decidedly not what he’d been expecting. He still couldn’t get over the fact that the librarians were alive. And there were so many more dragons than the Knights of Brainless Brawn had thought. How had the librarians survived being attacked by dragons? And why were they living together? Any knight who got attacked was highly unlikely to befriend his attacker. The big green dragon, though, the Bookwyrm, hadn’t seemed aggressive or mean enough to attack anyone. Daren wondered if he would ever hear that story… 

But a knight shouldn’t be curious, he reminded himself. Curiosity leads to a search for knowledge, which in turn leads to time wasted and no work done. At least, that’s what his father always said. He had no reason to doubt it.

The librarians led him through another torch-lined corridor, this one heading deeper underground. Daren tried to take note of all the turnoffs and the paths they took at each crossroads, but soon he lost track of where they were.  

If my father were here, what would he do? Daren figured he’d probably try to figure out what he was facing. Get to know his opponents—or the people he was rescuing, or whatever. He had no idea what was going on. 

He sized up the man, Toby. Graying blond hair, nondescript clothing, slight but wiry build, confident stride, quiet voice, gentle expression. He could be a threat if it came to trying to escape. He didn’t seem particularly aggressive, though. Not violent. He wouldn’t last a day in knight training. 

He turned to Shaia and gave her a cursory glance. She had a small frame and not much muscle. So, probably not a threat. But he had seen the fire in her eyes when he and Nolan had been arguing. She had passion, more so than many of the others, and that could make her unpredictable. Daren’s cheeks heated as he recalled how many times he’d looked at her during the meeting. She must think him very strange, but he couldn’t help himself. 

She wasn’t beautiful in the same way as the girls he was used to—the girls in Battlenear were trouser-wearing, muscular creatures with flowing hair, secret smiles, and brightly burnished breastplates, whereas Shaia was slight and clad in a calf-length skirt and blouse, with her hair pulled back in a tight bun, as all the women’s had been, and an expression more lent to seriousness than smiles.

Her eyes had drawn him because she was the only one who showed a sign of care. Everyone else’s eyes held only suspicion—except the dragon, the Bookwyrm, whose eyes were entirely unreadable. Hers held suspicion also, but there was a glimmer of empathy as well. A possibility that she actually cared about what they did to him, that she would be upset if they killed him. 

Daren pushed those thoughts away quickly when he realized what he was thinking. Of course, she wouldn’t care. She didn’t know him. If he died here, he would get a hero’s funeral back in Battlenear and then never be thought of again. No one, knight or librarian, would remember him for long, and certainly no one who didn’t know him would care in the slightest what happened to him.          

They passed many turnoffs to short hallways that each ended in a single door. Likely they were bedrooms, but there were many more than ten. Daren couldn’t imagine why they would need so many.

Finally, Daren could stand the silence no longer. 

“So, you all live here? In the mountain?” he said in a rush. His voice sounded oddly loud in the peaceful stone hallway. 

Toby turned to him and smiled. “Yes, we’ve lived here for nearly twenty years. These tunnels are our home.”

Daren felt oddly disappointed. “You really don’t want to go back?” He glanced at Shaia.

She gazed at him seriously, her eyebrows pulling together. “Daren, there is nothing for us back there. I get why you would love it in the kingdom, but we were ridiculed, made outcasts of society, and given all the worst jobs. Your kind just doesn’t understand what it means to be one of us.” 

“Why would we?” Daren asked. “I mean, you all are just using your bookishness as an excuse to get out of doing real work. A knight would never try to get out of doing productive work.”

Shaia’s eyes sharpened. “You would think that, you—” 

Toby stopped walking and set his hands on her shoulders gently, cutting her off. “Remember the code, Shaia,” he said softly. “Remember your oath.” 

She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. The tightness gradually left her features, but the lightness of the minute before did not return. She looked back at Daren, who was very confused. 

“As I said,” she told him, “your kind doesn’t understand what it means to be one of us.” 

Daren opened his mouth to respond, but she’d already turned back around. Toby gave him a look that was half chastisement and half sympathy, but Daren couldn’t hold his gaze. He didn’t understand what he’d done wrong, but he couldn’t help but be sad that he’d angered her. 

The librarians remained silent all the way to the room he’d be staying in.