Hoard
Written by Steven Piziks   

librarian.jpg Hoard

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 history?”

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 forgotten language.

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 valuable tomes.

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.

The librarian 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.

“Wouldn’t surprise 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.

Her companion 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.”

Offering assistance 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.”

The librarian’s nostrils flared. “Please don’t lean on the books,” she said tartly. “Your elbow could dent the cover.”

Kira straightened, startled. The man looked up from his page and grinned. “Told you,” he said.

“Uh, sorry,” the woman apologized lamely.

The librarian 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.”

“Everything we’ve heard so far keeps pointing us to this library,” Kenyon added. “That’s why we’re here.”

“What can you tell us about it?  The dragon and its hoard, I mean,” Kira asked.

A half-dozen 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 dangerously.

“Does the library have any books on dragons?” Kenyon inter­jected, ignoring his sister’s earlier warning.

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 flared again.

“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 promptly.

“Thank you.” The man bowed briefly and scurried away.

The librarian turned back to the couple and found them both staring in undisguised astonishment.

“Amazing,” Kenyon 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 uncivil.

“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.”

“I understand,” 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 later?”

The Berthwin 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.”

“Probably,” Kenyon 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, startled.

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 reply.

“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 holding now.”

“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.” 

“Deal!” Kenyon 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.

“Well,” the 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 come from?”

The librarian 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?”

“Well,” Kenyon 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 it?”

“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 book.

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 local legends.”

“Damn,” Kenyon 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.”

“Smart.” Kira 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.

The librarian 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.”

The librarian nodded. “How did you figure it out?”

“This passage.” Kenyon fingered a line in the book and read aloud, “‘Dragons sometimes take human form...’”

“‘...especially those dragons that don’t mind human conversation,’” the librarian finished quietly.

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 nerve.

“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 librarian.

“You’re welcome.” She widened her smile, enjoying the absence of tension. “Good luck to your future.”

“And to yours,” Kira replied automatically, moving toward the door. Her brother followed, shooting the librarian one last regretful glance as he left.

The librarian 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.

The End

Copyright © 1991 Steven Piziks

 

 
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