THE UNDERGROUND LIBRARY: CHAPTER 7

The continuation of the story of the Daren, the Bookwyrm, and the librarians

Courtesy+of+Natalie+McLaren

Courtesy of Natalie McLaren

Skylar Deegan, Staff Writer

Chapter 7

They were going to kill him.

Daren found out early the next morning, after a long and restful night on his familiar bed. It was the last restful sleep he was going to have for a while. His father showed the warrant to them during breakfast. It held a picture of Daren and a notice that he was to be executed at dawn in seven days. Executed. He was going to be stoned to death.

Daren was suddenly unable to swallow. Stoning was one of the most dishonorable ways to die, short of being burned at the stake. He wasn’t ready for this. As soon as his dad’s back was turned, he bolted out to the backyard and buried his face in Darla’s soft fur.

This couldn’t be happening. Daren wasn’t ready to die. He’d barely started living yet. He’d only started having a mind of his own about a week ago; couldn’t he have a little longer to enjoy it?

But he’d known what he was in for when he got in the way of the Knights of Brainless Brawn. He’d known this was coming; he just hadn’t been prepared for how shocking it would be to actually see his own name on a death warrant.

They were going to kill him.

Daren closed his burning eyes, struggling to control his breathing. He was hyperventilating, but he couldn’t figure out how to stop. Couldn’t figure out how to think. To move. To go on for the last seven days of his life.

Finally, he lifted his face from the dog’s fur, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. Darla nosed him gently. Her big brown eyes were soft and sad, like she knew what was going to happen. Daren rubbed her head.

He got up then, slowly, sadly, but surely. Unhooking Darla’s chain from the doghouse, Daren took her for a walk through Battlenear. He resolved to enjoy his last week of life, and he was thankful that they’d given him a whole week. At least he had time to say goodbye to those he cared about.

Then he thought of Toby and Sala and Shaia, whom he was never going to see again. He wished he could tell them what was happening. He wished he could show Toby how to make a meat pie, and he wanted to hear Sala read to him one last time. He wished he could apologize for the things he’d said to Shaia. He wished he could tell her that he—

But there was no use thinking about that now. She was long gone, and she would probably despise him to the end of time. At best, maybe she would just forget about him. Daren hoped that was the case, even as his heart pinged with pain at the thought of it. He didn’t want her to forget him. But he didn’t want her to live in hatred, either; hatred wreaks havoc on a human soul.

He’d been walking around aimlessly, trusting his feet to keep him going while his mind was occupied. Now, looking around, he couldn’t help but grin at where he’d brought himself. Of course, it was here. This was where he needed to be.

He was standing in front of one of the more ramshackle houses in Battlenear—which is to say that it had no tall towers or beautiful gardens. It was still very nice as houses go. To Daren, it looked very nice indeed.

He knocked on the door, trying not to imagine what would happen if they weren’t happy to see him. He didn’t think he could bear it.

The door opened. Behind it stood a small woman, older than Daren by at least two decades. Eliss. She smiled at him sadly.

Daren rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Greetings, Dame Skyfall. I was hoping—um, I mean—” He sighed. This was so hard. “Can I see Reyga?”

Eliss took a step toward him. “Daren. We just heard.” She embraced him softly.

Daren sighed and relaxed into her. He’d been expecting a harsher reception than that, and he was relieved that his best friend’s mother was still okay with being around him. Even though he now had a death warrant on his head.

“Of course, you can see him,” Eliss Skyfall said when she finally pulled away. “I’m sorry your family has to go through this.”

Daren dipped his head in acknowledgment. “Thank you.”

He fidgeted, unsure of what to say next. Eliss smiled at him. “He’s out back,” she said, holding the door wide so that Daren could come in.

Reyga was out back with a sword—a real one, not a training stick—and several of the quartermaster’s best training dummies. There were dismembered potato-sack limbs and piles of straw scattered all across the yard, and another dummy was tied to a post. Daren’s best friend was going at it with the sword, hacking the poor dummy to bits. His face was red, his ropey muscles tense from exertion. He turned when he heard Daren come in, dropping the sword in the dirt.

“Daren!” he yelled. He ran over like he was going to hug Daren too, but he thought better of it and boxed him on the side of the head. Hard.

“Ow,” said Daren. “What was that for?”

“That was for disappearing, leaving your family and friends in the lurch, making me think you were dead, and, when you finally do come home, not coming to your best friend first thing! What am I to you, dragon fodder?”

Daren smirked. “Nah, I think you’re a little stringy for them.”

Reyga made to hit him again but he dodged this time, sweeping the skinny man’s legs out from under him. Reyga growled and pounced on him, and they wrestled around in the dirt.

“So, I take it you missed me,” Daren said when they finally subsided, panting and covered in mud.

Reyga grimaced. “Missed you? I practically mourned you. I don’t think you quite get this, Daren, but we thought you’d been killed by dragons.”

“I’m sorry,” he replied quietly.

Reyga shrugged. “It’s all good, so long as you stay alive.” Neither of them mentioned the execution. “Now,” he said, rolling up on his elbow to look at Daren eagerly, “tell me everything.”

Daren did. He told him about setting up camp outside the mountain and waking up in it with his arms and legs bound, about Nolan’s hostility and snark, about the big, green Bookwyrm who seemed to be the unofficial leader of the dragons and librarians, about how the librarians were living in peace and harmony with the dragons (Reyga scoffed at that disbelievingly), about the library and the garden and saving little Sala… and about Shaia.

Daren blushed as he told Reyga about what she looked like, how she’d looked at him so much when they first met, how she’d talked to him and laughed with him and taught him to read.

“Ooh, looks like somebody’s in loooovve,” said Reyga, grinning impishly.

Daren scowled at him. “Am not.”

“Are so.”

“Am not.”

“Are so.”

“Am not.”

“Are so.”

“I’m not,” Daren yelled, his annoyance and embarrassment coming out easily as anger. “I’m not,” he added more quietly, “but it wouldn’t make a difference if I was. We—our last conversation—we said some things that are hard to take back. I said things I regret.” He sighed. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m never going to see her again.”

Reyga, with all the tact of a best friend who’d seen Daren at his absolute dumbest, said dramatically, “Then you shall die a martyr, with your one true love not knowing how you feel about her.” He flopped down with his hand over his heart, pretending to be in the throes of death.  

Daren rolled his eyes and shoved his friend away. “You’re hopeless.”

Reyga grinned. “Yes, I am.”

They lay there in silence for a while, enjoying the sunlight that flashed through the trees.

“So,” said Reyga finally, “what are you going to do in your last seven days?”

Daren shrugged. “I’m not sure yet. I figured I’d get to know my new dog”—he gestured to Darla, who was happily chewing on the remains of one of Reyga’s practice dummies—“spend time with my mom, and try to keep my best friend out of trouble. I wish,” he sighed, “I wish I could go back to the mountain one more time. You see, there was this prophecy…”

He told Reyga all about the Bookwyrm’s vision, how he was prophesied to save the knights and librarians. He explained his mixed feelings, and how he’d come home instead of staying and helping them.

“…and I’m not sure if I’m doing the right thing, but it’s a little late to second-guess that now, isn’t it?” He stared up at the sky sadly.

Reyga held up his hand. “Wait a second. Hold the horse. You left your one true love and a prophecy that says you’re going to be, like, the coolest guy ever so that you could come home to your happy death sentence?” He glared at Daren. “Who are you and what’ve you done with my best friend? Get your priorities straight!” He rubbed his eyebrows as if this conversation was giving him a headache. “Go get your horse.”

“What?”

“Go get your horse saddled and ready. Pack a bag and give your mom a kiss while you’re at it. You ain’t going to see her for a while.”

Daren gave his friend a look, making no move to get up. “Why?”

“Because we’re going to the stinking mountain, okay? Get moving!” Reyga swatted at him jokingly.

Daren laughed, but he did. He had a great friend.

 

Twenty minutes later, packed and saddled and all ready to go, the boys set off with Darla close behind them. Daren was reminded of his initial journey to the mountain, but the stares were new. Everyone they passed stopped what they were doing to watch them go. Daren figured they thought he was crazy for going back to Dragon Mountain, although no one had expressly told him not to.

There was a figure waiting for them beyond the last moat. Daren groaned when he saw her.

“You’re bringing Lee? Really, Reyga?”

Reyga just laughed. “She would’ve killed me if I’d left her behind.”

Lee was technically friends with both of them, but Daren thought she was highly annoying. It really wasn’t her fault (though he wasn’t going to admit that); she just had it bad for Reyga. Now, though, he was going to spend his last week alive with the two lovebirds, a librarian who was probably still very mad at him, and a horde of dragons who thought he was going to save the world. It was going to be interesting, to say the least.

“Hi, boys!” she said brightly as they rode up. While her words addressed both of them, she had eyes only for Reyga. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Hi, Dollie,” sighed Daren, feeling like he was somehow already the third wheel even though they hadn’t started their journey yet.

She rolled her eyes at the nickname. Daren always called her that. She definitely looked the part; she’d always had long, blond hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks, and a long, lean-limbed build. That wasn’t why he called her that, though. He called her that because, for as long as any of them could remember, Lee had been too prim and proper to get into trouble the way Daren and Reyga did. She never got her hands dirty, never had even a single hair out of place. Daren didn’t know how she did it—or why. She could easily pound most people into the ground with just her hands. She never did, though. At least, he’d never seen her do something like that. Again with the whole never-a-hair-out-of-place thing.

Lee looked as well-kempt as she always did, with a stylish riding jacket over the ever-present breastplate. She smiled sweetly at Reyga and drew her horse beside his, speaking to him in a voice too low for Daren to hear.

Daren rode on ahead, quietly resigning himself to putting up with her as kindly as possible. It was going to be a long week.

 

Something wasn’t right.

They’d made it to the mountain after dinnertime, and the halls were eerily deserted. No young dragons chased each other, no librarians were curled up in a corner chatting about a book over tea, and the Bookwyrm’s rumbling timbre couldn’t be heard echoing through the halls. They weren’t there… Why wouldn’t they be there?

Daren ran from one room to the next, checking bedrooms and common rooms and every nook he could think of. Finally, he heard voices. He sighed, his tense muscles relaxing. Of course, they didn’t leave him. Where would they go?

They were in the Library. Everyone was gathered around the Bookwyrm, eerily qiuet and still. Only Bert was talking, and he fell silent as Daren and his friends—and Darla—entered the room. The ten librarians and innumerable dragons stared at them with no small amount of hostility.

The knight stopped walking, startled by the lack of welcome. “Um, hi,” he said tentatively.

“Daren!” said a squeaky voice. “You came back!” A flurry of small dragons jumped on him, knocking him to the ground. They crawled all over him happily. 

Reyga reached for his sword-hilt hastily, unsure if Daren was being attacked. He and Lee looked quite on-edge being here, surrounded by those they’d been told their whole lives were enemies.

Daren smiled in relief, oblivious to the discomfort of his friends. “Sala. Of course, I came back. What would I do if I couldn’t see you again?” He rubbed her scaly cheek, scratching behind her ears the way she liked. She purred happily.

“See,” she said, turning to Tara, “I told you he’d come back for us.”

Tara looked uncomfortable. She’d obviously thought Daren was gone for good. Daren didn’t blame her.

Only after he’d rubbed the head of each young dragon did he look up to the others. He stood tall, unrepentant, drawing courage from his dragon-friends. “I’ve come to help fulfill the prophecy. If you don’t want me anymore, I’ll leave now. Otherwise…” He spread his arms, not sure exactly what he was supposed to do to fulfill the prophecy and so leaving it vague.

They were still and silent for another long moment. Then Toby walked up to him and gave him a tight hug, predictably being the one to break the awkwardness. “You’re always welcome here, Daren.” He nodded to Reyga and Lee. “And your friends can stay as long as they wish.”  

That broke the unnatural stillness. Soon, everyone was crowding around them, wanting to know what had happened since Daren left, why he came back, and who his friends were. Meanwhile, the baby dragons began a rousing game of chase with Darla. The big, golden dog looked overjoyed to have so many new friends.  

Daren watched them play, a small smile on his lips. If only the knights and librarians could be so friendly upon meeting one another. He saw Shaia also watching the dragons from across the room. She was the only one who hadn’t come to greet him. She met his eyes briefly, freezing him in her gaze. An odd emotion flickering across her face. Then she turned sharply and walked out.

Without thinking, Daren followed her. He strode quickly through the corridors, ignoring those who called him back. He felt a little bad for leaving his friends alone in such an unfamiliar situation, but this demanded his attention. He didn’t want to be at odds with Shaia in his last week of life.

He turned a corner and nearly ran into her. She was leaning against the wall, waiting for him. Her expression was guarded but not angry. He was grateful for that.

“Why are you following me?” she asked brusquely, not looking at him.

“I, uh…” Daren trailed off. How do you tell someone you only have one week left to live? “Well, I wanted to talk to you.” He sighed. Straight-forward was probably the best way to go. “We got a notice this morning. I’m to be executed in a week for interfering with my father’s quest.”

He watched her expression, hoping for some bit of concern. Her face was enigmatic. She didn’t say anything.

Daren continued. “I don’t want to die without talking to you. I don’t—I don’t want to die with you mad at me.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry about what I said. You’re right.  It isn’t fair for the knights to care more about the life of one knight than the lives of ten librarians. It isn’t fair that we’re so biased. It isn’t fair that you all always got the worst jobs and the most demeaning treatment. And it isn’t fair to think that you can’t defend yourselves. I know you can. So, I’m sorry. Your opinion means a lot to me. I hope I can be more than just some stuffed-up arrogant knight.”

Silence. Then, so quietly that he almost missed it, “I forgive you.” Her voice was tight with emotion. “You’ve always been more than just a knight. I’m sorry—I’m sorry I ever thought you weren’t. I’m sorry I—I’m—” She finally met his gaze, her eyes red and watery. “I’m sorry you’re going to die,” she said, the last word drawn out in a sob. She sat down suddenly, like her legs had failed her, cradling her face in her hands.

Daren stood awkwardly for a moment as she cried, but then he sank to the floor beside her. “Hey,” he said, rubbing her back gently, “it’s going to be okay. I’m not the first knight to suffer the consequences of getting in the way, and I certainly won’t be the last. Plus,” he added, his tone joking, “with me gone, you’ll have no more knights to touch your beloved books and put them back in the wrong places.”

Shaia smiled through her tears. “That’s not funny,” she said thickly, but her tears abated somewhat. She leaned her head on his shoulder.

Daren stiffened at her proximity. She was almost entirely pressed against his side, her red hair fanning out on his arm. She was really, really close to him. Then her body spasmed with another sob, and he remembered that she needed him here. He turned to face her, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her into his chest.

“I don’t want you to die,” she told him sadly. “I want you to stay here. With me. Please.” She looked up at him suddenly, her eyes full of hope. “Daren, they can’t kill you if they can’t find you,” she said, her tears forgotten. Daren was struck again by how close they were, their faces only a breath apart. Her beautiful blue eyes filled his vision. “Could you stay here? Leave them. You could live with us; I know you like it here.”

But Daren was already shaking his head. “No, Shaia. If I stay here, they’ll only attack you again. I know you all can protect yourselves, but there are too many of them.” He gripped her arms, willing her to understand. “People would die, Shaia. You could die. I’m not going to allow that to happen.”

Shaia closed her eyes. “Why do you have to be so bloody honorable all the time?”

“Sorry,” he said. “A product of my upbringing.”  

He waited for her to cry again, but her eyes were dry now. She stared out into nothing, shoulders slumped with weariness. It broke his heart to see her so sad.

“It’s just been the day for it, I guess,” she said softly. She brushed a stray lock of her hair behind her ear. “First the Bookwyrm, and now you…”

Daren’s eyebrows furrowed. “What happened with the Bookwyrm?”

“You haven’t heard?”

He shook his head.

Shaia looked at him steadily, as if to convey the importance of the news. “He just told us today,” she said heavily. “He knew it was happening, but he only just told us today.” She took a deep breath. “The Bookwyrm is blind, Daren.”