THE UNDERGROUND LIBRARY: CHAPTER 3

A story about dragons, knights, and… librarians?

Skylar Deegan, Staff Writer

Chapter 3

The Hollow, as the Bookwyrm had called it, turned out to be a cozy cave at the end of quite a confusing maze of corridors.        

“My room is just down the hall,” Toby told him kindly as he walked out the door. “I’ll leave you to get set up, but feel free to come find me if you need anything.”

Shaia followed him out without a word, leaving Daren to wonder if she was mad at him. And why.  

He shrugged contemplatively. Girls made no sense. She was probably just like that.

Daren wasn’t really ready to think about the whole you-have-to-stay-here-and-be-watched-by- babysitters-24/7 conversation, so instead he took stock of the room. It was small and square, with a fireplace on one wall and a bed in the far corner. Every other available surface was lined with bookshelves. 

Daren snorted. Librarians and their books. Why they liked them so much, he would never know. Of course, he had never read one himself, being unable to read. Literacy wasn’t stressed in knight school.  

Someone had placed his bag and belongings—sans sword and all other weapons, he noticed—on the bed. That was good. If he could find out where they were keeping his weapons, maybe he could get away. He would honor his word in staying for two weeks, of course, but he had no reason to think that the dragons would just let him go after that. And even if they did, they would likely not give him back his weapons. He wouldn’t either, if their situations were reversed. 

Daren emptied his bag of everything but a coil of rope, the dagger he’d hidden in the lining, and what little food he had left and slung it over his shoulder. Time to go exploring. 

He wasn’t sure what time it was, given that there were no windows, but he figured it was around midnight. Everyone had likely gone back to bed, so this was a great opportunity to take a look around. 

Daren walked out into the hall, surreptitiously looking around to see if anyone was around. He didn’t expect anyone to be, as Toby’s room was the only nearby. 

He started back the way he’d come with Toby and Shaia, careful to keep his steps light. Most knights did not have any ability to walk quietly, but Daren was unusual in that regard. He had learned at a young age that things like hunting and sneaking up on your younger brother are much easier if one has the ability to be stealthy. 

Daren was feeling confident about his chances of finding a way out. Everyone was asleep, the dragons were MIA, and the main tunnels were pretty easy to distinguish from the side passages. What could go wrong? 

Before too long, however, he started to feel claustrophobic. The torches flickered in a way that seemed eerier than it had when he was first coming down. Daren’s shadow was long and distorted, sometimes in front of and sometimes behind him. At the edge of Daren’s hearing, there was a soft scratching noise every so often. The tunnel walls seemed to be pressing in on him, and he had to struggle to keep his breaths quiet and even. 

Why was everything getting to him all of a sudden? He was fine just a minute ago…

When he got to Toby’s room, he realized there was a sliver of light below the door, which was still ajar. There was no way Daren could successfully sneak past someone who was awake, so, with a sigh of relief, Daren turned back around and headed deeper into the mountain. He was still going to explore, of course, but in a safer way, away from people and strange noises and creepy shadows.

It took a minute for his brain to catch up and tell him that there would be torches wherever he went, so he wasn’t actually getting away from the creepy shadows at all. He told his brain to be quiet and continued walking.

Before long, he made it to a place where the tunnel widened and all the walls were lined with bookshelves. Daren had never seen so many books in one place. As he came to realize, however, that was nothing. 

At the end of the hallway, the tunnel opened up into a vast, cavernous library. Daren’s jaw dropped. There were bookshelves upon bookshelves, extending higher up the sides of the mountain than he could see. There were no torches in this room, understandably, but moonlight streamed in through a gaping hole at the very top of the mountain—or, rather, the volcano. Daren figured it was inactive, since there were people and dragons living in it. At least, he hoped so. 

Around the room, comfortable chairs and couches were arranged tastefully in clumps, with some blanket-lined hollows in the walls and ground that Daren assumed were for the dragons. There were tables dispersed throughout the room for studying, and long ladders leaned up against the bookshelves to help get to the higher books.  

Daren walked around in a daze. He didn’t like books, particularly, but he couldn’t help being awed at the incredible room—if something so large could be called such. He spent a while wandering among the smaller bookshelves in the middle of the room. The colorful leather-bound covers were so tempting. He’d always been told that reading books was wrong, and that it was a waste of time. He’d seen a few, of course, when he was younger. Before the librarians disappeared. But this—this room—it was a beautiful, magical celebration of something that he didn’t understand. He was drawn to it by something deeper than just books. 

Before he was fully aware of what he was doing, Daren had taken a book off of the shelf. He ran his fingers over the fancy lettering on the spine. He knew he wouldn’t be able to read it, but he still opened it gently. He was immediately aware of a smell—something earthy and papery and mysterious—coming from the book. He didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t like anything he knew of back at Battlenear. He liked it, though, and that scared him a little bit. What would his father think? 

“Ah, Daren Swiftblade,” said a voice from behind him. “You’re the last person I expected to see in here.” It was an old voice, weathered by time but still lovely.

He turned to see who had spoken, and found himself staring into the wrinkled face of the eldest librarian, Sonya. She was smiling up at him. 

“Um, hi,” he said, not sure what else to say. Suddenly it felt almost sacrilegious to be holding one of their books in front of her. He moved to put it back, but she stopped him. 

“Keep it,” she said. “You’ll like that one.”

“I don’t know much about books,” Daren told her awkwardly. “It would be better appreciated by someone else.”

Sonya cocked her head. “Perhaps,” she admitted, “but this book chose you.” She pressed it into his chest gently. 

Daren wanted to ask if that was how that worked; he’d thought that the person chose the book, not the other way around. But before he could, the old woman said softly, “I love it here. Don’t you?” She turned her large, bespectacled brown eyes toward him, seeming to peer into his soul.

“I mean, I guess,” he said hesitantly. “I’ve only been in here for a few minutes, so I don’t know if I can say one way or another.”

She tsked at him. “Some things are either loved or hated. With things like that, you usually know right away. The Library is one of those things.”

Daren waited for her to ask him again, not knowing what he’d say, but she didn’t. She seemed content to keep to her own thoughts. When she finally spoke, it was to ask, “Why are you here?”

He bristled at her words, thinking she was asking why he wasn’t in bed or with the librarians who were supposed to watch him. “What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously. 

The look in her eyes calmed his defensiveness. She laughed at him, eyes winking mysteriously among layers of wrinkles. “I am not asking how you escaped your guards. You aren’t causing any trouble.” Her tone remained teasing, but her words were serious. “Everyone comes to the Library for a reason. What’s yours?”

Daren thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know. I wasn’t trying to come here, so maybe there isn’t one.” His skin prickled as he said this; he already knew it wasn’t true.

Sonya waited patiently for him to put his thoughts together. 

Daren took a deep breath. “I guess I came because I wanted to see what all the fuss is about. You all are here because of something. I know it isn’t entirely because of books, but still.” Then his cheeks pinked and he added, “Also because I couldn’t sneak past Toby’s room.”

Sonya chuckled. “He was always a late reader. Most of us are. Oh, and speaking of late readers,” she added, lowering her voice conspiratorially, “Shaia almost always sleeps in the Library. In case you need to talk to her.”  

Daren was confused. “Why would I… Oh, you mean from when we talked earlier?” He frowned. “How did you know about that?”

She patted his cheek affectionately. “I have my ways.”

Daren was too surprised by the contact to say anything. Why was she treating him so nicely? Knights were never this overtly kind to strangers. But Sonya… She was acting like he was her long-lost grandson come to visit. Weird. 

Sonya started humming a pretty tune that somehow perfectly fit the atmosphere. It was quiet and peaceful and haunting. Daren had never heard anything like it, which was starting to be the story of his life. Nothing here was familiar. 

Finally, he said, “Thank you for your time—and for the book. I think I will go find Shaia. Though I’m still not sure what I did to offend her,” he added under his breath. 

Sonya laughed. “Just remember that learning something at a young age doesn’t make it true. Your people believe a lot of things about us that are decidedly false.”

Daren nodded. “I’m starting to get that impression.”

He stared at the shelves, lost in thought, until Sonya waved him off amicably. “Go, child. Leave this old woman to her books and happy musings.”

He smiled and walked deeper into the Library, clutching the book in his hand. 

For a while, he just walked through the shelves smelling that odd book smell and imagining what each book could be about. He wasn’t sure how accurate his guesses were, but there were some books that were very obviously boring and useless. Those books had dull covers and a different smell—less mysterious and more unused. That was something cool about this library, he realized, that there were only ten librarians but they somehow managed to read almost every book in here regularly. None of them were dusty, other than the aforementioned boring books that likely had only been opened once each. Even with his limited knowledge of books, he knew that was a feat. There were thousands of books in this room. 

Still lost in thought, Daren turned a corner and ran right into Shaia, knocking her armload of books to the floor. He yelped in surprise. 

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” he told her, cheeks flushing. 

Shaia bent to retrieve her books, and Daren tried to help her. “Don’t worry about it; I wasn’t looking either.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes or take the books he offered her.

Daren didn’t know her that well, but he figured these were not good signs. He cleared his throat, trying to think of a way to phrase what he wanted to say without making the situation worse. I shouldn’t have—no, he didn’t really feel that. He didn’t want to lie to her. You shouldn’t have—no, that would only make her more upset. I’m very sorry—that was good. He liked that. Let’s see… I’m very sorry I told the truth about what your people are like. No, that was too blunt. And unkind. Why were words so hard?

Shaia turned on her heel sharply and started walking away, startling Daren out of his thoughts. The words he’d been putting together came crashing down around him. 

“Wait!” He hurried after her.   

She stopped, but kept her back to him. “Wait for what? You to say more things about me and the rest of us here that aren’t true?” He could hear the annoyance in her tone. 

“What? No, of course not!” Daren stopped also, giving her some space. “I came to apologize.”

Shaia turned back to him, her eyes wary but curious. A few strands of her hair had fallen out of her bun, and Daren was surprised to find that it was a vibrant shade of red. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed that before. 

“I’m sorry I said that your people never did real work,” Daren told her quietly. “They did; I know they did. I remember seeing your mother and Marc and Salem especially doing many of the menial chores in the kingdom. It’s just—that’s what I’ve been raised to say, and to think. I never thought to wonder if we have it all wrong.”

Shaia’s eyes softened. “Well, you do have it all wrong, but I accept your apology.” she replied, and she walked back over to take her books from him with a lightness in her step that hadn’t been there a moment before.  

Daren sighed in relief. “Okay, good, because I’m going to be here for a while and you’re the only person here who’s close to my age and I know you’re already supposed to be around me all the time, but I was hoping we could—you know…” He trailed off, unsure of how she would respond, not wanting to finish the question if she was going to laugh at him.

 Shaia looked surprised. “You want to be my friend?” she asked incredulously. 

“Well, yes,” Daren said haltingly, “but I—I understand if you don’t want to after what happened earlier. I wasn’t being particularly kind to you.”

“Hmm… I’ll think about it,” Shaia told him with a small smile that he didn’t quite understand. 

Daren fidgeted nervously, not sure if he should say anything. 

Shaia started laughing. “I’m sorry, that was rude. I wanted to see if you really meant it.” She grinned impishly, not looking repentant in the least. “Yes, I would love to be your friend.”

His body relaxed, and his fidgeting stopped. “Great,” he said in relief. “Thank you, Shaia.”

Her grin softened into a genuine smile. “No problem, Daren.” She appeared to notice the book he was carrying for the first time and squinted at it as if to read it from a distance. “What book did you get?” 

Daren had forgotten all about it. “Oh, that. I don’t know; it’s just some book I picked up that Sonya wouldn’t let me put back. Something about the book choosing me.” He shrugged embarrassedly. “There’s no point, really. I couldn’t read it even if I wanted to.” 

Shaia had taken the book from him and was inspecting the cover, but she looked up in shock at his words. “You can’t read?”

Daren shook his head sheepishly. “No one ever taught me how.”

“Well, that’ll have to change, now that we’re friends,” she told him firmly. “I’ll teach you how.”

“Thanks,” he said, taken aback. “I’d like that.”

She smiled again. “We should probably be getting to bed. How about we start tomorrow?”

“That sounds great,” Daren admitted, struck by how uncharacteristically eager he was to learn this new skill. It was unlike him to want to learn anything, other than new ways to incapacitate an opponent. “Let’s meet in here again,” he said, referring to the Library. “I like it here.”

“The Library is the best room in the whole mountain.” Shaia’s eyes glowed happily in the moonlight as she looked around the massive cavern. Then she turned to him. “C’mon, I’ll walk you back to your room.” 

As they walked out, Daren took one last look at the wonderful room. Sonya was right, he realized. He did know what he thought of the Library already. He loved it.