You never know what might show up in a library.
(This is the very first short story I ever sold. It went to Marion Zimmer Bradley for Sword and Sorceress IX, and when I got the news she wanted to buy it, I sat down. There was no chair behind me.)
“Excuse me,” said a female voice. “Where can we find the books on local
The librarian didn’t
take her eyes from the scroll she was studying. “Third stack from the north
wall, second shelf down,” she answered automatically.
“Thank you.” Two
sets of footsteps tramped purposefully toward the north wall, allowing the
librarian to get back to deciphering a recently acquired treatise written in a
The librarian felt
rather pleased about that treatise. It was a unique item and deserved a place in
her library. The library, made of comfortably solid stone, would hold it and
keep it safe for eternity.
The library itself
had only one large door on the first floor and still bore a close resemblance
to the small keep it had once been. The one-time central hall and kitchen now
housed the main stacks. The second floor living quarters had been changed into
cubicles for copying text or had become locked rooms for housing the more
It was the latter
that made the library famous. Scholars traveled scores of leagues to consult
important works found no where else, and a small university had sprung up
nearby. The fact that the original keep had been built in the middle of nowhere
did not seem to affect the library’s renown. The library had no name. It didn’t
need one. The scholarly community referred to it simply as “the library” and
there was no mistaking what they meant.
glanced up and scowled at the north wall. The couple was gathering most of the
books from the second shelf of the third stack and they were handling their
piles carelessly, heedless of their value. She dug long fingernails into her
palms as she quickly rose from her desk and hurried toward them. Her heels
clicked sinuously on the stone floor.
The couple, a young man
and woman, finished looting the second shelf in short order and began hauling
their booty in unwieldy piles to a nearby table. The librarian sucked in her
breath and increased her stride.
They’re going to drop one, she thought furiously, her steps almost a
run. They’re going to damage the books.
“What do they make
these things out of?” grunted the man behind a stack of books nearly as tall as
he was. “Copper plating?”
The woman frowned as
she deposited her own load heavily on the table. The pile teetered
precariously. The librarian opened her mouth to roar out a warning, but at the
last moment, the woman reached out and casually righted the stack. The
librarian’s mouth snapped shut, but she didn’t slow her pace one iota.
me,” the woman said. She had completely nondescript features; brown hair and
eyes, average height, and a complexion that bespoke many hours in harsh
sunlight. Her movements revealed a stolid grace and she wore practical clothes
which allowed easy freedom of movement.
possessed identical eyes and hair, but his skin wasn’t as deeply tanned. He
also dressed in practical clothes, but he moved more carefully, as if he had to
remember how to make his body work. He also treated the books with more care,
the librarian noted. His stack, though tall, was straight and well-balanced,
and he was treating each volume like an individual treasure. The librarian
decided the woman was probably a warrior and the man was probably a scholar,
perhaps even a magician.
“Watch what you’re
doing, Kira,” the man warned as he cautiously set his collection down. He
selected the top volume, sat down, and delicately turned to the first page. “Books
are more fragile than they look.”
The librarian nodded
curtly in agreement as she clicked quickly across the floor. Books were more
valuable than gold, more fragile than pearls, and he obviously knew it. She
decided she liked this man. A little.
“Is there anything
in particular you’re looking for?” she asked briskly as she reached the table. “Perhaps
I could help.”
was a risk, but if she stayed nearby, she could be sure the books wouldn’t
suffer any damage.
Kira looked up from
the volume she was about to examine. “We’re looking for information on dragons,”
she replied, leaning an elbow on her pile. “One dragon, anyway.”
nostrils flared. “Please don’t lean on the books,” she said tartly. “Your elbow
could dent the cover.”
startled. The man looked up from his page and grinned. “Told you,” he said.
“Uh, sorry,” the
woman apologized lamely.
nodded. “Which dragon did you want information on?” she asked, though she was
already certain she knew the answer.
“The one that used
to live in this keep,” Kira answered.
A tight little smile
creased the librarian’s mouth. She had been right. She ground her teeth in
frustration. “Ah,” she said. “That dragon.”
“My name’s Kenyon,
by the way,” the man said from his chair. He gestured cheerfully at the woman. “This
is my sister Kira.”
“We’re looking for
the dragon hoard,” Kira stated matter-of-factly. “Can you tell us anything
about it? There must be a lot of stories about it in the library.”
“Yes,” answered the
librarian, choosing to address the last remark. “Yes, there are.”
heard so far keeps pointing us to this library,” Kenyon added. “That’s why we’re
“What can you tell
us about it? The dragon and its hoard, I
mean,” Kira asked.
emotions boiled up inside the librarian’s consciousness and at the center of
them all was the reddish tinge of rage. Then she angrily shoved them aside. She
wouldn’t be able to think if she couldn’t control herself and she had, after
all, offered assistance.
She ought to be used
to treasure-seekers by now; at least half a dozen wandered into the library
every year. But a burning hostility was steadily growing behind her eyes.
“There isn’t much to
tell.” The librarian forced herself to breathe easily. She would have to answer
their questions and obvious reluctance or anger would only make them
suspicious. “The keep was built about two centuries ago by a man named Innis
Gorath. Or he had it built, anyway,” she amended, falling into the rhythm of
the story. “Gorath was reputed to have been a lazy man. He was also a criminal.
The king banished him and his men to this area. According to the royal record,
he should have been executed, but the king was merciful.”
“That we knew,”
Kenyon put in. “We saw the records at the capitol.”
“After the keep was
built,” the librarian continued, ignoring the interruption, “Gorath began
consolidating his power. He was planning eventually to launch a rebellion
against the throne. That was when the dragon arrived. According to legend, the
dragon simply took the entire keep by surprise. Most of the men escaped, but
Gorath didn’t. The dragon settled in and stayed for almost two hundred years.”
The familiar litany
of words dampened the librarian’s anger a bit, though it still smoldered
“Does the library
have any books on dragons?” Kenyon interjected, ignoring his sister’s earlier
The librarian should
not have been surprised - the question was inevitable - but she had still been
hoping it wouldn’t come up. It would make things more difficult. The anger
“Yes.” The answer
was almost a hiss.
“Could we see them,
please?” Kenyon seemed unaffected by her tone. “I think they’d be very helpful.”
The librarian almost
refused, then sharply bit back the words. That, too, would look suspicious. Not
as suspicious as two dead bodies, but suspicious nonetheless.
“Of course,” she
replied freezingly. “They’re upstairs. I’ll take you there.”
“Excuse me,” said a
new voice at the librarian’s elbow. She turned sharply. The voice belonged to a
short, stout man in a brown scholar’s robe and she recognized him as a regular
visitor from the university. A respectable man. One who knew what books were
about and how to treat them.
“Yes?” she said
politely. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for
Tregard Heatherton’s work dealing with the effects of folk remedies on lung
disease in horses.” He ran a plump hand over his near-hairless head. “Can you
tell me where I might find it?”
“East wall, first
stack, second shelf, fifth book from the right,” the librarian replied
“Thank you.” The man
bowed briefly and scurried away.
The librarian turned
back to the couple and found them both staring in undisguised astonishment.
said, mouth hanging open in awe. “How did you know that?”
“I’m very familiar
with that work,” the librarian responded shortly even as she cursed herself.
She should have pretended to think before she spoke.
Brother and sister
exchanged glances at her tone and the librarian could read them like one of her
scrolls. For someone who offered to help us, they said, she’s being terribly
“You were going to
show us the books on dragons?” Kira finally prompted.
“This way.” The
librarian spun brusquely on one heel and clicked her way toward the staircase.
She could feel Kenyon and Kira trading looks again in her wake, but she couldn’t
spare the energy to think about them. The rage was back, growing with every
step that lead them closer to the books and she was nearly shaking with the
effort to contain it by the time they reached the staircase.
She led them up the
stairs and down a corridor which was faced with several closed doors. The
librarian continued onward, grimly refusing to glance back. Control, she told
herself, control. She channelled her fury into her heels and they clicked
nearly hard enough to break the stone floor.
At the corridor’s
end, she stopped and produced a set of keys. Without looking, she blindly
inserted one of them into a disused lock and twisted savagely. Metal scraped
and muttered, but the door finally swung open.
The room was small
and dark. The dust raised by the librarian’s entrance made Kira break into fits
of sneezing and a smile of mean gladness slid briefly across the librarian’s
face before she turned around.
“Not many people ask
to see these books,” she said, pretending to apologize. “That’s why all the
dust.” She reached into the darkness and came up with a metal lantern which she
carefully lighted from one of the many candles that studded the corridor. While
they were fine for the hallways, the librarian certainly couldn’t allow candles
among the books. The risk of fire and dripping wax was far too high.
The room was cramped
and airless. A small table companioned by an equally small chair huddled in the
corner. Bookcases dominated the walls and seemed to stare ominously at the
intruders in the gloom. Kira and Kenyon entered timidly.
“The books you want
are on that shelf there.” The librarian gestured with the lantern, then set it
carefully on the table. “These works are extremely rare, so I’m afraid I’ll
have to stay here while you look them over.”
Kenyon said, examining the indicated shelf. “Can you tell us which - “
A sudden pang went
straight through the librarian’s churning stomach and a red haze suffused her
vision. “Excuse me,” she interrupted. “I’ll be right back.” She turned and
shouldered her way past a surprised Kira, then flew down the corridor, her
heels clicking a furious staccato beat.
The librarian reached
the head of the stairs and didn’t even pause. Near the door she could see a boy
wearing a student’s frock. He was carrying a book. The librarian shot down the
stairs, savagely caught him by the shoulder just before he would have exited,
and sank her fingernails into his flesh, yanking him sharply away from the
door. He yelped in surprise and not a little pain.
“I’m sorry, young
man,” she snarled. “Books are not allowed out of the library.”
She snatched the
book from his hands, shoved him roughly out of the building, and slammed the
door behind him. With a grunt of satisfaction, the librarian straightened her
clothes, tucked the rescued tome under her arm, and headed back upstairs.
As she drew closer
to the little room, she could hear Kenyon and Kira talking. Abruptly the
clicking of her heels ceased and she eased quietly closer, gently hugging the
little book to her chest as if it were a small child.
“‘Dragons can speak
the human tongue but cannot lie, except by omission,’” Kenyon was saying,
apparently reading aloud. “‘When conversing with a dragon, listen carefully.’
Who would ever want to talk to a dragon? Don’t they eat first and ask questions
text, the librarian thought
sourly. They would find that one first. She could imagine them seated in
the little room running their greasy, dirty hands over the books and she had to
clamp her lips together hard to reign in a growl.
“And listen to this,”
the man continued. “‘A dragon is always aware of every bit of treasure in its
hoard and it instantly knows if something is moved or stolen.’”
Kira snorted. “I
think the hardest part is going to be separating the facts from the stories.”
agreed. “But we’ve been doing a lot of that lately.”
There was the heavy
sound of a book closing and a moment of silence. The librarian ground her teeth
and listened further, straining to hear something, anything that might give her
more information, but the room remained quiet.
She was about to
re-enter when she heard Kenyon’s voice again.
“Kira,” he said
abruptly, “Why don’t we go home and forget about this?”
“What?” Kira asked,
The librarian froze,
listening hard enough to hear the lantern sputtering in the tiny room.
“I’m tired of
traveling. I’m tired of hunting clues. I’m tired of the whole search, Kira,”
the man explained. “Why don’t we just go back to Middestown and forget this?”
“Oh, just like that?”
Kira replied caustically, snapping her fingers. “I suppose we can just leave
our family holdings in the hands of strangers, too.”
Kenyon did not
“I want that hoard,
little brother.” Kira’s voice was tinged with a tone that raised the librarian’s
hackles. “I want our lands back and that hoard will buy them for us.”
“To what end?”
Kenyon countered gently. “Mother sold them because she couldn’t run them
properly. She was happy to see them pass to a family that had the training and
resources to do it.”
“And she’s buried in
a public cemetery,” Kira spat. “Not on the land. Our land.”
“That didn’t matter
to her. She said so.”
“And I could run the
“Could you?” Kenyon
snapped. “I suppose you learned all about running a hold in the mercenaries
guild.” There was an awkward pause, then, “I’m sorry, Kira. I know this means a
lot to you. I’m just tired, that’s all.”
The librarian heard
a rustling of cloth and assumed that Kenyon was now resting his head in his
hands. There was another long pause. Sensing that something important was about
to happen, she waited quietly in the corridor.
“Tell you what,
little brother,” Kira said slowly after awhile. “How about we keep looking for
a month? If we don’t find the hoard by then, we’ll go back to Middestown.
Porino’s been after me to train recruits for ages now. I suppose I wouldn’t be
unhappy doing that.”
agreed. “One month to find the hoard.”
In the hallway, the
librarian glanced upward and said a quick prayer of gratitude. Now if she could
just nudge them in the proper direction, she wouldn’t have to explain a sudden
disappearance. She smiled at the thought as she clicked unhurriedly into the
room. Kenyon and Kira looked up from their positions seated amid stacks of
books on the table.
“Sorry for the
interruption,” the librarian said. She placed the small tome she had rescued on
the table. It somehow managed to look significant despite the abundance of
larger volumes nearby. “People frequently try to walk away with a book or two,
though sometimes it’s by accident.”
“Have you lost any
so far?” Kenyon asked curiously.
“Not that I know of,”
the librarian answered grimly. “We keep strict records here.”
Kenyon nodded and
opened the Berthwin book again.
“So what happened to
the keep after the dragon moved in?” Kira prompted.
librarian leaned back on the table, then backed away when it wobbled
uncertainly, “the stories get a little spotty at this point.” Depending on who you’re talking to, she
added silently. “As I said, the dragon held the keep for about two hundred
years and supposedly built up an amazing amount of treasure, though no one knew
exactly what it was supposed to be. The stories all agree it wasn’t gold or
silver or magic.”
“Where did it all
shrugged in carefully calculated noncommittance. “The stories don’t say. They
never do, of course. As time went on, tales of a great treasure drew
gold-seeking warriors from all over. None actually managed to overcome the
dragon, though a few came close.”
“So why isn’t the
dragon still here?” Kira shifted impatiently in her chair.
“I was getting to
that. According to the stories, a woman named Lilire rode into the keep. She
was the thirteenth warrior to challenge the dragon that summer and she was in
the keep for less than an hour before she rode back out. The place was empty,
she said. There was no trace of the dragon, nor of the treasure.”
Kira looked at the
librarian dubiously. “You mean it just picked up and left? Why?”
ventured, glancing up, “this book says dragons don’t like to be disturbed,
though a few like to talk.” He looked intently at the librarian. “Maybe she got
tired of fighting all those warriors. Maybe she just wanted to be left alone.”
The librarian shot
the man a penetrating look and he returned it for just a moment before dropping
his eyes. Kira opened her mouth to say something, but the librarian jumped in
ahead of her.
“At any rate,” she
continued, “Lilire claimed the keep for herself, and it was she who eventually
started the library. It’s been here ever since.” She looked back at Kenyon. He
avoided her gaze.
“But where did the
treasure go?” Kira asked insistently. She had obviously forgotten her earlier
thought. “It had to go somewhere. The dragon couldn’t just carry it away, could
“Who knows?” Kenyon
said without looking up. He carefully turned a page. “Dragons are supposed to
be powerful creatures. Crafty, too.” He refused to meet the librarian’s eyes,
though she was doing her best to force him to do so.
“Is there anything
you can tell us about where the dragon might have hidden its hoard?” Kira asked
intently, oblivious to the silent exchange. “It’s very important to us.”
The librarian looked
at Kenyon again, trying to see his face. But he kept his eyes stubbornly on the
He knows more
than he’s letting on, she
thought shrewdly, but he doesn’t seem ready to tell his sister. The last
of her tension abruptly abated.
“Well,” she said
aloud, deftly separating a book from one of the piles, “Leland has a couple
theories in this work here, and Kythnar,” she extracted another book, “has a
few ideas you would find interesting. If you have time, you might also want to
consult Arkinia Marthesgrave. She teaches at the university and knows a lot of
suddenly muttered, patting his robe and twisting round in his chair to examine
the floor behind him, “I think I left my writing case downstairs and I wanted
to copy these passages.”
sighed. “I suppose you want me to go get it for you.”
Kenyon flashed a
wide grin that reminded the librarian of a puppy. She swallowed, suddenly remembering
she hadn’t eaten lunch yet.
“You’re such a nice
sister,” Kenyon said with wide-eyed innocence.
Kira merely snorted
as she rose from her chair and headed out the door. Kenyon watched her go, then
turned to the librarian.
“I know where the
treasure is,” he said slyly.
settled herself into the chair Kira had vacated. “But you’re not going to tell
anyone,” she replied coolly.
“What would that get
me? It’s not exactly portable. Besides, I don’t want it. Kira does.”
nodded. “How did you figure it out?”
Kenyon fingered a line in the book and read aloud, “‘Dragons sometimes take
those dragons that don’t mind human conversation,’” the librarian finished
Kenyon closed the
book. “Yes.” He paused. “I could learn a great deal from you. A great deal.”
“I’m a librarian,”
she answered, looking the man straight in the eye, “not a teacher.”
“No, I suppose you’re
not.” He sighed and looked away. They sat in silence, a silence Kenyon
obviously wanted to break but it was equally obvious he couldn’t find the
“I didn’t see your
case, Kenyon,” Kira said, striding into the room a while later. “Are you sure
you left it down there?”
“No,” Kenyon replied,
reaching under his chair. There was a definite touch of regret in his voice. “I
did have it up here after all.”
Kira rolled her
eyes. “And they call you a sorcerer.”
The young man smiled
briefly, then looked beseechingly at the librarian. She shook her head
minutely, the thin smile dancing on her lips again.
“I think we should
go to the university now and see that professor,” he said. “I think I’ve
learned all I’m going to.”
“What about the
passages you wanted to copy?” Kira objected.
“I don’t think I’ll
need them.” He rose and stretched. “Thank you for your help,” he told the
She widened her smile, enjoying the absence of tension. “Good luck to your
“And to yours,” Kira
replied automatically, moving toward the door. Her brother followed, shooting
the librarian one last regretful glance as he left.
thoughtfully watched them go, then, with practiced ease, she methodically put
each book they had used back in its proper place. She picked up the little book
that didn’t belong in that room and, meticulously locking the door behind her,
clicked her way to its place in the stacks. She placed it carefully on the
shelf, treating it like the treasure it was.
Copyright © 1991 Steven Piziks