THE UNDERGROUND LIBRARY: CHAPTER 5

A story about dragons, knights, and… librarians?

Skylar Deegan, Staff Writer

Chapter 5

The librarians kept Daren on bedrest for over a week. They practically doted on him while he was incapacitated, which was a new feeling. In Battlenear, knights who got hurt were disdained as being weak or unable to defend themselves, but here he had been treated like a hero. It was a nice change, if he was being honest with himself.   

The wound on his back had been deep, but not so deep that it had damaged anything but muscle. Now that he’d rested for a week, it was just an ugly scab on his ribcage. At least he would have a nifty scar to show his friends back in Battlenear. 

The scar also gave him the undying loyalty of the dragons, especially little Sala. She had come to visit him every single day he was down and talked to him, apologized, read to him (The Giver, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Where the Red Fern Grows, and other such books that he’d never heard of), and generally just kept him company. He appreciated her coming very much. Daren had never thought that he would have a dragon for a friend, but he couldn’t not think of her as such when she’d done so much for him.  

Of course, not everyone was being perfectly friendly and kind. Nolan was still distant and rude, but all the others treated him like he’d always lived there. His time with them was coming to an end, which made him sad. He wasn’t sure what he’d do when his two weeks were up. He was looking forward to seeing his mother again, but he didn’t want to have to leave.

He was really going to miss Toby and Shaia—especially Shaia. She’d spent a lot of time teaching him to read while he was confined to his bed, and he was getting better at it. He’d made some progress in the book Sonya had given him. It was called A Brief History of Battlenear by Alfredde Maidsaver and Reggiana Inkblot, respectively a knight and librarian, and it was quite lengthy for a book that called itself “brief.” It was surprisingly interesting, though, and it covered the history of Battlenear from inception to near the present in detail. 

So far, he’d learned that Battlenear was founded by a knight named Harald Hardrada the Heavy-Handed, the ancestor of the current Brawny One (Herman Hardrada the Ham-Hearted), as a refuge for underappreciated knights. Most of the knights in those days were underappreciated. They’d flushed the dragons from a valley that was to their liking and built a kingdom there. Obviously, they had not gotten all the dragons; they’d known the Bookwyrm was still there, but he had never caused them any strife, so they let him be. 

Battlenear thrived for many years, and knights came from the far reaches of the continent to live in a place where they weren’t under attack for who they were. The librarians, who were travelling book merchants at the time, came several hundred years later (Battlenear was established in the 3062nd year SIW—Since the Inception of the World—and the librarians didn’t come until the 3397th year). They were trapped in Battlenear by a freak snowstorm and weren’t able to leave until after the winter had passed, by which point they had settled down and become a fairly integral part of Battlenearian society. They set up libraries all over the kingdom, which was quite expansive by that point, and lived there happily until the civil war that took place a few decades later. 

Daren had only just gotten to the end of the peaceful period, but he was eager to learn more. Battlenear’s history was much more fascinating than he’d known, but no one in Battlenear (other than the librarians, of course) kept a record of anything, so teaching history was nearly impossible.  

 

Speaking of nearly impossible things, Daren was having trouble breaking the iron grip Shaia had on him. A few minutes before, she’d told him she had something to show him, grabbed his hand, and started pulling him through the halls. Not that he minded; he rather enjoyed being dragged around by her. They painted a rather comical picture to anyone who saw them; a slight, excited woman rushing by with a towering knight trailing behind her like an obedient puppy. 

Finally, she stopped in front of a small door. “Here we are,” she told him breathlessly, her eyes aglow. The door was intricately carved with vines and trees, wreaths of flowers and bowls of fruit. It was a beautiful sight. 

Daren arched an eyebrow at her good-naturedly. “Are you going to tell me where ‘here’ is yet, or should I just go in?” 

Shaia just grinned and opened the door, going in ahead of him. Daren went in after her, bending nearly double to fit through the librarian-sized door frame. The sunlight blinded him at first, but what he saw when his eyes adjusted took his breath away. 

He was standing at the entrance of the most beautiful and most oddly-located garden he had ever seen. They were on the outside of the mountain, standing under an archway of grapevines. At least, Daren thought they were outside. However, as he came out from under the archway, he realized that they were in another great cavern in the mountain, this one walled with glass instead of rock. How the librarians had managed that feat of architecture, he had no idea, but the effect was awe-inspiring. 

The room was filled with every type of fruit, vegetable, green, or berry that Daren had ever had—plus many he’d never seen. He recognized apple trees, assorted grapevines, carrots, onions, peppers, lettuce, kale, raspberries, and strawberries, but most of what he saw was unfamiliar. There was a fuzzy, apple-like fruit growing on a tree, a green seed pod on a low bush, and round orange and yellow fruits that looked hard as a rock. He’d never seen the like of these before. 

He realized suddenly that his mouth was hanging open. He closed it hurriedly, and saw Shaia hiding a chuckle behind her hand. 

“So,” she said, smiling at him, “do you like it?” 

“When you said you had a garden, this is not what I pictured,” Daren said sardonically. 

Shaia raised her eyebrow at him. 

“It’s beautiful,” Daren added, and he meant it. 

Her smile widened, and she turned her attention back to their surroundings. “That it is. Our garden rivals the beauty of even the Library.”

They walked for a while, for the garden was quite large, and talked about how things had changed back in Battlenear. The kingdom that used to be all Daren knew was feeling farther and farther away from him, like a dream. The only things that seemed real anymore was this mountain, these people, the books, the Library. Nothing else mattered.  

Then the illusion broke.

Nolan came flying into the garden, yelling, Come quickly, both of you! They’re going to kill us! I heard them say so. It hasn’t even been two weeks—” Here he doubled over, gasping for breath. He seemed to have run quite a long way.

Daren’s heart started pounding. He spoke to Nolan gently, hoping to project a calm he wasn’t feeling. “Slow down and breathe,” he told the young librarian. When he felt he had his attention, Daren asked, “What happened?”

Nolan took a deep breath. “The knights are attacking us. They’re right outside laying siege, and they said they would kill us all if we don’t hand you over to them.” 

He said more, but Daren didn’t hear him through the blood pounding in his ears. The knights were here? The conflicting sides of his life were suddenly juxtaposed, and he didn’t know which he valued more. Did he want to be a knight and have every part of his life ordained for him, every good action rewarded by public praise and every failure by public derision, every quest be the will of the Brawny One as opposed to himself, and everything he believed—his very worldview—to be handed to him on a silver platter? Or did he want the freedom of choice and imagination that came with living with the librarians, the freedom to read and not be judged, and to be looked down on by everyone else? To never see his family again… 

Regardless of what he was going to do about his life, people he cared about were in danger at that moment. Daren wasn’t going to let his people kill anyone, especially not a librarian. 

Especially not Shaia, whispered a voice in his head. Daren ignored it. 

Determination firmly in place, he raced out of the garden without waiting for the librarians. 

The corridors flew by as he ran, heedless of the people who yelled at him to slow down. He had to talk to his people before anything happened. 

Finally, he made it to the mouth of the mountain. He’d never actually seen the opening, but he didn’t figure that the giant, gaping hole in the side of the mountain could be anything else. As he ran out the exit, there was a surprisingly large temperature drop. He saw why when his eyes adjusted to the light. The top of the mountain was covered in snow. 

Daren saw the Battlenearians almost immediately. They had made a very visible ring around the mountain. They were indeed laying siege, complete with massive catapults and trebuchets. And there were a ton of them. Daren had rarely seen this many knights in one place. And they were all there for him. A daunting thought. 

Daren stopped running as he neared them, holding up his hands to show that he had no weapons. The first person he saw was his father. 

“Dad?” 

He’d stopped walking. He didn’t remember deciding to. 

“Daren!” His father ran to him, surprisingly quickly for the lumbering brick of a man that he was. 

He stopped abruptly a few paces from his son, as if realizing that everyone was watching them and wouldn’t look highly on his overly enthusiastic greeting. Knights don’t view emotions as important, so public interactions were strictly impersonal. Even within families. 

“It’s good to see you, son,” Soren Swiftblade told him gruffly. 

Daren felt oddly disappointed. Had his dad even missed him? Not enough to say so aloud, apparently. “You too, Father.” 

All formality, no emotion, no conscience. Do what you’re told, and do it with as much apathy—or, better yet, anger—as possible. Was this really the life he wanted to return to?

Sir Swiftblade had other things on his mind. “It’s time we end this. These librarians and their pesky dragons have been terrorizing us for too long. We fight today, and we go to kill them all!” He thrust one huge gloved fist in the air. “For Battlenear!” 

The knights yelled and chanted and hit each other, working themselves into a frenzy of bloodlust. Once Daren would’ve joined them, but now he was scared. He couldn’t let them kill anyone. The dragons and librarians deserved to live just as much as any knight. 

Soren Swiftblade started toward the mouth of the tunnels, swinging his axe with an ease that belied its large size. Daren ran up next to him. 

“Dad—Father—stop! Don’t kill them. They haven’t done anything wrong!” His words tumbled out clumsily, proclaiming openly how much this mattered to him. He wasn’t supposed to care. Now everyone knew that he did. “They didn’t treat me poorly at all, and they haven’t hurt anyone in the past. They’re good people, Father, please! Please don’t hurt them.” 

His father looked at him coldly. “Obviously, they aren’t good people. They’ve turned my own son, the top knight in his class, into a blithering coward who can’t see that they need to go.” He pushed Daren aside roughly. “We’ll speak of this later.” 

Daren watched as his father continued toward the tunnel, feeling like he’d been smacked. A coward? His father had never insulted him that way before. He felt like curling up into a ball and pretending none of this was happening, but he knew he couldn’t.

Daren took a deep breath and pulled the old mask down over his expression. There was only one way he could think of to get them to hear him. Hopefully he would live through it. 

Running up in front of Soren Swiftblade, Daren stood before the knights—hundreds of them—with only his bare hands and a mountain of determination.    

“Leave them be,” he said, his voice strong and steady, “or you’ll have to go through me.” 

Dead silence. Daren could hear the wind whistling in the trees a mile up the mountain from them. The knights just stared at him, dumbstruck. 

Some of them began chuckling softly, but not his father. Daren stared at him in silent challenge, reading nothing from the elder Swiftblade’s enigmatic expression. His father stood stock still. The only moving part of him was his eyes, which flicked between Daren and the tunnel opening. 

Getting in the way of a mission was punishable by death, whether or not they killed him now. Daren had known that when he first moved in front of them, and he’d been scared out of his wits. Now, though, he felt strangely calm. He’d said his piece. All he had left to do was wait. And if he died, at least he was dying for something he believed in. 

As the silence lengthened and no one seemed inclined to share it, Daren started talking. “They have done nothing to warrant an attack. They’ve hurt no one of us beyond the knocks and bruises we get when they discourage us from attacking them, and even those are few. I promised them I would stay with them for two weeks, which is only three days away. I gave my word, so I will stay.” He paused, challenging anyone to disagree with him. No one did. “You all are my comrades, and I desire to hurt none of you, but hear me on this: Anyone who makes a move on the mountain will find himself with a sword or talon against his neck or a book thrown at his head.” His eyes glinted dangerously. “I am not the only threat in this mountain.”  

Without waiting for a response this time, Daren turned sharply on his heel and walked back toward the caves. He was expecting every second to feel an axe between his shoulder blades, so he nearly jumped out of his skin when his father finally said something. 

“Will you come back?” he asked Daren simply. 

Daren looked back over his shoulder at the stern, solid figure of his father. “Of course,” he said. “Battlenear is my home.” 

He wondered as he said it why those words suddenly felt slippery and wrong on his tongue, like they weren’t compatible with who he was anymore. Was Battlenear really his home anymore? He wasn’t sure he knew. 

Daren could see that his father was unhappy with this arrangement, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. 

Daren Swiftblade turned his back on his people without another word. 

 

Toby and the other librarians had been discussing what they should do about their current and lethal knight-infestation when Daren walked into the room. Silence fell, but the young knight didn’t seem to notice. He didn’t look young anymore. He stood tall and quiet, exuding a confidence that filled the room. He looked older. Wiser. Sadder. Toby wondered what had transpired outside. 

“You don’t have to worry about the knights anymore,” he told them. He didn’t speak loudly, but his voice carried. “I sent them away. They won’t come back.”  

The librarians stared at him in stunned silence. 

Toby was startled by the transformation that had come over the young knight, but he tried not to show it. Trying to ease the weight of the loaded silence, he said jocularly, “You’re even more special than we thought, Swiftblade. How in Harald’s name did you manage that?” 

That broke the spell. Everyone began talking at once, laughing, crying, questioning Daren, wondering at how they could be saved so easily. He told them the bare facts—he went out and talked to his father, no one got hurt, the knights were going back to Battlenear, they wouldn’t bother the dragons and librarians again. 

The only person who didn’t seem happy about everything that was happening was Shaia. She was leaning up against a wall at the back of the room, frowning darkly. Daren seemed to have noticed her, also, and he went over and started talking to her quietly. 

Toby couldn’t hear them, but he could see from Shaia’s posture that she was upset and lashing out. Daren’s expression was unreadable, but he didn’t look happy. His posture suddenly got ramrod straight, and his eyes became angry. He hissed something after Shaia as she was walking out the door, something that made her even angrier. She glared daggers at him over her shoulder and left the room. 

Toby was saddened by this exchange. He’d gathered from Daren’s subdued way of addressing everyone that the young knight was going back to Battlenear at the end of his two weeks—in less than three days—and that he wasn’t happy about it. He hoped that the two of them could make it up to each other before then. 

What he didn’t know is that if they didn’t make up before Daren left for Battlenear, they might never see him alive again.