THE UNDERGROUND LIBRARY: CHAPTER 4

A story about dragons, knights, and… librarians?

Skylar Deegan, Staff Writer

Chapter 4     

Daren had gotten only a few hours of sleep when the bell clanged for breakfast. He wasn’t feeling too bad, though. He had enjoyed his time in the Library, and the walk back with Shaia. She was surprisingly fun to talk to for someone who had seemed so serious. 

Breakfast was heaping platefuls of eggs and bacon, which Daren appreciated. They certainly knew how to do food here. As he looked around, he realized that the librarians had much smaller portions; he had been given the same amount of food as most of the dragons. He chuckled inwardly at that. At least they had one thing straight. 

Shaia smiled at Daren but otherwise didn’t acknowledge him. Nolan, on the other hand, glared at him with a fiery light in his eye. Daren resolved to steer clear of the abrasive young man. 

He ended up next to Toby, who made conversation about books and Battlenear. Through that conversation, Daren found out that Toby was the cook in the mountain; he had made both breakfast and the soup and salad of the night before. Daren told the older librarian about his mother’s cooking, more than a little wistfully. Toby promised to show him the gardens that kept them in fruit and vegetables—which mystified Daren; how did one grow fresh produce in the middle of a mountain?—on the condition that Daren showed him how to make his mom’s meat pies. Daren agreed. He was definitely starting to like the older man. 

After breakfast, the librarians and adult dragons made a list of the chores that needed to be done that day and divvied them up amongst themselves. This was what they did every Saturday, Daren found. And many other days. The three of them were going to work together on their tasks, which ended up being dusting the Library, fixing the ironhorn pen, and picking the necessary fruit and veggies from the garden. That was the morning. The afternoon was basically just free time, during which Shaia was going to teach him to read. 

So, the day was mostly chores. Daren was used to doing chores, of course, but they were usually more of an afterthought. The “real work” had to get done first. Daren was coming to realize that it was all real work; the different groups just thought differently about what was most important. 

They decided to dust the Library first. Daren was again struck by the beauty of the room, but he didn’t comment on it. 

Instead, he asked, “How are we going to do this? Like, they don’t expect us to dust every book, right? There’s no way we can reach all of them…” He trailed off as he realized that both Shaia and Toby were fighting back smiles. “What?”

It was Toby who answered. “We are going to dust them all. You’ll see how.” 

“You aren’t afraid of heights, are you?” Shaia asked him, grinning impishly. 

Daren was afraid of heights, as it turned out, and that was a problem, because the librarians’ method of dusting the books turned out to be hoisting a person with a vaguely leaf-blower-like contraption on a pulley system attached to the mouth of the volcano. The person would then blow the dust off of all the books they could reach. One or two people on the bottom worked the ropes to keep the person safe-ish and prevent any unnecessary falling. 

All in all, it did not sound like a fun time to Daren. But that kind of work is too much for any one person—or even for two people—so all three of them took turns being the blower. Naturally, Daren, who felt the need to prove his bravery to his new friend—friends?—went first. 

“Are you sure you’re ready?” Toby asked Daren before they hoisted him into the air. “There’s no shame in staying on the ground.” 

Daren felt that there was shame in staying on the ground, but he didn’t say that. Instead, he said, “No, I’m fine to go. I mean, how bad could it be?”

It turned out that it could be pretty bad. 

“Oh my loudness, oh my loudness, I can’t look.” Daren’s eyes were shut tight, his limbs flailing for solid ground. He knew Shaia and Toby were watching him, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. “I’ve got to be pretty high off the ground now, right?”

Silence. Then Shaia told him laughingly, “Open your eyes, genius.” 

Slowly, timidly, Daren opened one eyelid. He was both relieved and embarrassed to find that he was only a few feet off the ground. 

“Oh. Well. I felt a lot higher than that.” 

Shaia snorted. “We could tell.” 

Toby politely tried to hide his laughter behind his hand, but he was only partially successful. 

Daren’s cheeks flushed. He was very tempted to turn his dust-blower on them, but he refrained. 

“Do you want us to bring you down now?” Shaia finally asked. 

“No,” Daren told her. “Lift me higher.” With his pride smarting as it was, he felt he had to do something to save face. Even if it terrified him.

Shaia and Toby pulled on the ropes gingerly—he could tell that they were trying not to scare him again—and Daren rose. His stomach churned uneasily, and he felt like his lungs were going to explode every time the rope pulled him higher. But he didn’t say anything; he just tried to force himself to breathe and not look down. 

After what felt like an eternity, he stopped moving. 

“You can start blowing the books off,” Toby called up to him. “Just do two or three bookshelves and then we’ll bring you down.”

Down sounded very good. Daren already wanted to be down. But here he was with a leaf-blower and his wounded pride, much higher off the ground than he’d ever wanted to be. 

Daren started blowing off the books. The dust rose in clouds around him before the wind picked it up and whisked it away through the mouth of the volcano. It was an oddly soothing sight—and there was that book smell again. He was starting to love it, as strange as it was. 

He almost had a panic attack when they pulled him up to be level with the mouth of the volcano. He was so high off the ground. Then he made it worse by looking down. His stomach dropped. He was hundreds of feet off the ground with nothing below his feet, nothing holding him in the air but a rope harness. Toby and Shaia were little more than colored specks far below him. If he fell from this height—no, he couldn’t think about that. No one was falling, least of all him. He was safe. He would just pretend that there was a floor right under him, that he would only fall a few inches if he did fall. He closed his eyes. There, that was better. Shaia was right next to him—he could practically smell her hair. And Toby was on his other side, humming something softly. 

Daren jolted back to reality when he realized that he actually could smell Shaia’s hair and hear Toby humming. He was only a few inches off the ground. 

He almost collapsed when his feet hit the floor. His legs felt limp and shaky.  

“You okay, Daren?” asked Toby kindly. “You look a bit pale.”

Daren nodded, though he wasn’t really. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He struggled to breathe deeply, to calm his racing heart. “Who’s turn is next?”

Shaia shrugged. “I’ll go.”

The young knight tried to help hoist her up and nearly fell over. Toby looked concerned. 

“You look like you need to sit down,” he told Daren. “I can handle Shaia if you need a minute.” 

Daren wanted to help—he really did—but an opportunity to sit down was too tempting to pass up. “Thank you,” he said in relief. “I’ll only take a minute or two.”

Shaia flashed him a smirk. “Allow me to show you how it’s done, Your Knightyness. I’ve been doing this since I was big enough for the harness.”

“I’m sure you will, milady,” Daren told her, smiling. He gave a slight bow and went to find a comfortable chair. 

Soon, Shaia was in the air, and she really did show him how it was done. She made scaling bookshelves and being up high look effortless. The young librarian had dusted all her shelves in less than half the time than it took Daren with his. Daren’s attempt to show off to her had failed epically, but he wasn’t too sad about it. It was really cool to see her up there, jumping between the bookshelves. She looked like she was having a blast. 

Daren didn’t take his eyes off her for the whole time she was up there. Couldn’t, it seemed to him. Only when she had come down, flushed and laughing from the fun of it, did he finally look up to see Toby watching him with a slight smile on his face. The older man looked away when Daren met his eyes, but his expression didn’t change.  

The knight got up from his cushy chair somewhat reluctantly and walked back to the two librarians. “I’m guessing you’re going to need some help,” he told Shaia with a smile. 

Instead of the gratitude, he was expecting, Shaia outright laughed at him. “Why would I need that?” she asked him teasingly. “Am I some damsel that needs a knight in shining armor to save her from doing any real work? Did I not just show you that I’m fully capable of doing this task on my own?”

Daren flushed slightly. “Well, yes, but…” He gestured to Toby wordlessly, trying to figure out how to phrase what he wanted to say. 

“But what?” Shaia’s eyes twinkled at his awkwardness. 

“But—he’s a full-grown man! You couldn’t possibly lift him yourself,” Daren told her tactlessly. “Do you not need help?” 

Shaia’s expression retained its happy glow, but her eyes grew flinty. “Surprisingly, no, I don’t. I’m well aware of Toby’s size and gender, and I’ve been lifting him by myself for several years.” She paused, and her smile returned. “You should probably correct that way of thinking if you want to live here safely. There are a number of small but powerful women here, and we don’t like to be looked down on.” 

Daren cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Duly noted.” He kept his eyes away from her face. 

Shaia watched him curiously. “How do you think like that, living among warrior women as you do? Are they really just dainty little princesses who need you men to do everything for them, or what?” 

“No, it isn’t like that at all,” Daren said in surprise. “They’re very capable; I’ve just never been around a girl so…” He trailed off, unsure of how to continue. 

Toby was watching the whole spectacle with an amused expression. “Think carefully about how you finish that sentence, Swiftblade. This could go horribly wrong for you very easily.” 

Daren thought for a moment, then went for it, hoping he wouldn’t offend her. “You’re very small,” he said hesitantly, “and you seem to have had no formal strength training, so I guess I just didn’t expect you to be… strong.” He held his breath, waiting for her response. 

To his relief, she smiled. “I guess I’ll just have to prove you wrong, then,” she said haughtily. She proceeded to turn her back on him and began raising Toby into the air unassisted. 

He could see her shoulder and back muscles working, but it didn’t even look like it was very hard for her. Once she got Toby about ten feet off the ground, she didn’t struggle at all. She was way stronger than he’d thought she was. 

Daren knew he owed her an apology for misjudging her, but he didn’t really feel like eating his words aloud. And judging by her satisfied smile, she already knew. 

 

After they finished dusting the Library, Daren, Toby, and Shaia set off to the ironhorn pen. Daren wasn’t sure what an “ironhorn” was, but he did know how to mend animal corrals, so he figured everything would be fine. 

An ironhorn turned out to be a massive gray animal, the likes of which Daren had never seen before. It had one large horn protruding from its snout, small eyes and ears, thick skin, and stubby legs. Daren didn’t like the look of them. They seemed mean and wild. He was glad they didn’t have any in Battlenear. 

A group of young dragons were playing with a leather ball on the far side of the cavern, batting it back and forth. He stopped to watch them. They looked just like human children playing a ball game, minus the claws, tails, and wings—a little too rough and a lot happy. It was odd to Daren that they would be doing something so normal. 

The fence he needed to fix was made of a combination of tree trunks and boulders. It was more of a wall than a fence, really. There was a fairly obvious section where a tree trunk had been scored by the ironhorns repeatedly, which was what he needed to fix. It was not in imminent danger of giving way, but it would be after a few more strikes from the animals’ massive horns. 

Toby explained to him that they would rig a wooden fence on the inside of the wall, then take off the log that was falling apart and replace it with another. The fence was to keep the ironhorns caged while they worked. When Daren doubted that a simple fence would hold them back, Toby assured him that it would hold against anything short of a stampede. 

Constructing the inner fence wasn’t too difficult—or it wouldn’t have been, if it weren’t for the fact that they had to build it while straddling the broken wall and keeping the ironhorns away. Daren started to feel harried; he was constantly having to go back and forth between watching the ironhorns, building the wall, and throwing things at the other side of the corral to draw their attention away from him. Toby was with him, working just as hard, but Shaia took the easier job of keeping the toddlers from coming too near. So, basically, she played with the little dragons. She looked like she was having a lot of fun, too. She laughed openly, her bright eyes dancing in the torchlight. 

He was so distracted that he forgot to check for ironhorns, who were starting to get testy with their invaders. 

“Daren, watch out!” Toby called to him from the other side of the breach. 

Daren looked up to see a massive tusk headed right for him. His stomach dropped. He launched himself backwards from the wall, rolling when he hit the ground. 

“Scatter!” he yelled to the little dragons, many of whom were frozen in terror. 

The great beast plowed through the wall of rocks and trees as easily as if it were made of paper. The rest of the herd followed, all heading for a tunnel at the end of the cavern. Daren didn’t know where that tunnel led, but he hoped it wasn’t to anywhere important. 

The dragons were in a state of pandemonium, screaming the piercing shriek that only terrified children have. Daren searched the room frantically for Shaia, and was relieved to find her already on the other side of the rocky chamber. She was herding the tiny dragons into the far corner, soothing them with soft words and gentle hands. Daren was glad she was with them. 

As his eyes scanned back through the room, Daren caught sight of a tiny little blue dragon, eyes shut in fright, wailing at the top of her lungs, directly in the path of the charging ironhorns. She was crouching on the ground, obviously too afraid to move. 

Daren was running before he remembered deciding to get up.

His vision narrowed until all he could see was the child and the ironhorn charging at her. He sprinted towards her, aiming to pull her out of the way. He gauged the remaining distance; he was going to make it, but only barely. He ran faster. 

His foot caught on a rock, sending him sprawling. No, he was so close! He got up as fast as he could, but he knew he was going to be too late. He ran on anyway. When he got to her, he used his momentum to push the tiny dragon out of the way. She squeaked in surprise.

At the same time, he felt the lead ironhorn run into his back, throwing him across the room. He heard Shaia yelling dimly. He wanted to go to her, to see what was wrong, but he couldn’t seem to move.  

The last thing he saw was the baby dragon staring at him, her eyes wide and frightened.

 

The ironhorns thundered on in the background, but no one paid them any heed. 

Shaia and Toby rushed to Daren’s side. Sala, the baby dragon, was already by him. She nuzzled his hand gently, but he didn’t wake. She whimpered. 

“Why is he still asleep?” she asked Shaia piteously. “Why won’t he get up? He’s okay, right? He’s going to be okay?”    

Toby locked eyes with Shaia. She could see from his expression that the young knight was unlikely to have survived an impact like that. 

Swallowing back the lump in her throat, Shaia hugged the young dragon tight. “Yes, I’m sure Daren will be fine. Toby’ll fix him up, but you don’t have to watch. Go find your mom and tell her what happened.” She didn’t want the little girl to have to be here if Daren didn’t make it. Sala had had a rough enough day already. 

The dragon sat down resolutely. “No. I’m not going anywhere until I’m sure he’s alright.” 

Shaia shared another glance with Toby. This wouldn’t end well. Toby shrugged helplessly. There wasn’t much they could do if she refused to move. By now, all the other little dragons were coming over, too. They crowded around the librarians, asking earnestly if Daren would be alright. 

Finally, Toby stood up. “Alright, you lot,” he said affectionately, “ you can stay and watch him, but you have to give me room to work. I can’t help him with you so close.” 

The dragons obediently moved back a few paces and sat in a ring around them. 

“Better,” said Toby. He smiled at them, but his eyes were dark with worry. 

Please, please let him be alright, Shaia thought, unsure of who she was talking to. Please, for the sake of these tiny dragons, let him be okay. 

Toby set his fingers on Daren’s neck gently, feeling for a pulse. Shaia held her breath. The room was dead silent. 

Then Toby’s features relaxed. “He’s still going strong,” he said softly. 

The little dragons crowed happily and ran off to tell their parents and siblings. Shaia relaxed. 

“He’s still hurt; don’t get me wrong,” Toby added, “but his pulse is strong. He’ll be fine after a few days of rest.” 

Shaia sighed relievedly. “Good; then I can beat his sorry behind for scaring me like that!” 

Toby laughed, a deep, growing laugh that spoke of his own relief. 

They were silent as Toby removed Daren’s shirt to see the wound on his back. It looked pretty bad, but Toby assured her that it wasn’t deep. The worst thing he would suffer was bruising from the sheer force of the impact.    

“I saw her, too,” Toby said after a minute. “Sala, I mean. I wanted to help her, but it was as if someone else had control of my body; I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t even hardly breathe.” He took a shuddering breath. “But Daren… he didn’t even hesitate. If he hadn’t been here…”

Shaia set her hand on his shoulder gently. “You don’t have to think about that,” she told him gently. “He was here. Sala’s fine, and so is he.” 

Toby smiled dryly. “It’s a good thing, too.” He turned Daren over, checking for any other wounds. “I know we’re supposed to be teaching him to look at things differently, but I get the feeling that he might have some things to teach us as well. Maybe we’ve all been blind; knights and librarians.”