From the author: An homage to the librarians and book hoarders who have influenced my life.
“Peel me a watermelon, Jenks,” I called to my servant.
“Peel it yourself, Your Monstrousness, Madame Lea,” the pixie sneered back at me.
With that attitude, he should have been a gnome. I threw a book at him, the newest in a cozy mystery series I had just finished reading. Jenks flitted up into the cobwebs at the top of the cave. I sent a dribble of flame after him. Any more and I risked the danger of setting fire to one of the stacks of books piled around me.
My aim was off. I sent five spiders scuttling to safety but missed my target.
“Hey, send some more fire this way, Your Volatileness. Helps clean up a bit,” Jenks taunted me.
“House cleaning is your job.”
“If you’d hire some proper house fairies rather than enslaving an innocent pixie...” He darted into a corner behind the stack of Egyptology tomes.
“You know I can’t afford house fairies.” Jenks had come to me as part of a trade. I scared a pack of bandits away from a farmer’s livestock in return for some books. Jenks had been ensorcelled inside a delectable volume on wheat hybrids (I think the wizard figured no one would ever open the book and discover the bad-tempered brat). I broke the spell in return for services. Some day I’ll write a book about that adventure. Some day when I’ve finished my to-be-read-pile, or got bored with re-reading my favorites.
“If you’d get off your fat arse and go hunt up some treasure like a proper dragon...” Jenks ducked as I threw a rotten tomato at him. It was sitting right where I’d left it when I started reading the mystery series—goodness, can that have been two weeks ago? How time flies.
I lumbered off the lounge, displacing the pile of old romances that propped up the broken leg. A fog of dust engulfed me as the books tumbled. I was mad enough to spit fire, but had to settle for loosing a stream of ancient curses—gleaned from one of the Egyptology tomes.
“Where are you, you miserable pixie?” I screamed as I batted my forepaws through the thick air, trying to clear it before I sneezed.
Too late. “Achooooooooo!” Smoke and fire shot upward as I turned my muzzle away from the precious books.
“Now look what you’ve done!” Jenks screamed at me as he beat at a flamelet on a hardcover dust jacket with his hands. Unfortunately, his flapping wings only fanned the embers into real fire.
“No great loss.” I stomped upon the wildfire, half hoping I’d flatten Jenks in the process. “It’s only a duplicate copy of Astarte, Love Goddess To Unlovable Thieves, true porn masquerading as romantic erotica, probably the worst book ever written.”
“My favorite,” Jenks protested as he squeezed between my toes.
Drat! I missed the little gnat.
He examined a bent wing. The fire had singed the tip, and my talons had made a rent down the middle, a least two thirds it’s rainbow length.
“I claim the other copy as recompense for damages, Your Addicted-to-Justice-ness” Jenks moaned.
“Fine, and clear out some of this other crap while you’re at it.” I kicked a pig skeleton into the deep recesses of the cave. It bounced back from the pile of refuse, and shattered upon impact. I pulled a splinter free of the carcass and picked my teeth.
“You really should do something about the mess, Your Slobbishnes,” Jenks said, shaking his head.
He rummaged through a pile of rags to unearth a medicine bag from the last wizard who had tried to steal treasure from me. When the spell-caster had discovered nothing but books, I couldn’t allow him to leave. After all, my fierce reputation was all that gave me any privacy for reading.
The land was thick with knights and other adventurers; younger sons who couldn’t inherit the family homestead and had to make their own way in the world. I guess they hoped to pilfer a few diamonds and such to purchase their own land or make them more attractive to an heiress.
To tell you the truth, if I had a spare diamond or two, I’d sell it and buy more books. That’s the only use for treasure, in my not-so-humble opinion. My fractiously feuding family doesn’t agree with me, on much of anything. Especially the issue of books. Boils and pustules, what can I do with them?
They believe the purpose of a dragon’s life is to amass treasure and then defend it against thieving humans. Now if we could just teach more of those humans to read and to treasure books... But that’s another matter.
My family, with their hoards of shiny treasures can afford house fairies to keep everything clean and polished and properly accounted for in thick ledgers.
A clean cave is a sign of a sick mind. Or a sign of a dragon with nothing better to do with her time.
I’d rather spend my time reading.
Whenever family obligations require we meet, I always go to their places. I’d never invited a single one of them here, nor have I allowed them to “drop by” or escort me to a family gathering. They might discover that I’m not just erudite, I’m a total slob.
The doorbell rang. Such a rare phenomenon that Jenks and I stared at each other long enough for the visitor to get impatient and ring again.
“Quick, Jenks, get rid of it, whatever it is.” I slunk into a dark recess, grabbing my book along the way.
The bell rang again, a long and loud bong that repeated a dozen times, as if someone actually swung from the rope rather than rapping it smartly against the bronze bell. I wasn’t curious enough to peek out the window crack to see for sure.
“Keep your greaves on, I’m coming,” Jenks groused. He had to walk the ten tail-lengths to the iron-hinged and studded double oak doors. He couldn’t lift the latch of course. It was heavy enough to make me think twice about lifting it—so I rarely left the place. Jenks crawled beneath the door, then right back inside.
“Get your scaly chartreuse body over here, Your Immenseness. This is one of yours.”
“A knight?” I really didn’t want to fight a knight today. They’d left me alone for so long, I’d lost my taste for human flesh. Besides, I was just getting to the good part of the book, the part where the hero says this one special word in ancient Sumerian and the heroine melts into a puddle of oil.
Psst, I should mention that I usually recast the characters in the books I read. The ones you might ordinarily call villains are the true heroes. The nice guys are just too... too vanilla.
“A knight of sorts,” Jenks choked under his nectar scented breath.
Then I realized the hacking sound coming from his miniature body was laughter. If he’d make a decent mouthful, I just might eat him. But then, if Jenks didn’t lure game into the cave, I’d have to find food and cook occasionally. That would disrupt my privacy and my reading.
“Who dares trespass on my property,” I bellowed in my fiercest dragon voice. I let a little smoke seep under the door. That usually scared off all but the most desperate and poor of the thieves.
For an answer I heard only a tremendous thud against the stout door.
“What’s he got, a battering ram?”
“Better,” Jenks chortled. “A trebuchet.”
Curses and flames hit the door in equal measure. It caught fire and splintered under the next blow.
Where could I hide? More important, how could I keep the invader away from my books?
Panic made me shrink into a brittle shadow of my robust self.
“Quick, Jenks, sprinkle the place with pixie dust so he thinks all this is treasure and not just garbage. Maybe he’ll haul away a pig carcass or three.”
“Or six,” Jenks muttered. “You know if I dust the books maybe he’ll haul away a few stacks, give us some more room.”
“Over my dead body!” I puffed myself up and loosed another blast of fire. The knight was attacking the door with a fresh barrage of boulders anyway, maybe if I singed him through the cracks a little, he’d think twice.
“He’ll make your body dead if you aren’t careful.” Jenks threw a handful or two of pixie dust over the remains of my last six meals.
“More, Jenks. That’s not enough dust to fool anyone."
“All I can do, Your Gluttonness. Can’t fly, thanks to you singing my wing, so I can’t properly dust anything.”
“Maybe if you throw it in his face...”
“You willing to hold me high enough, and close enough to reach his face?” The cocky gnat stood, hands on hips, feet spread in an aggressive stance.
“I don’t... If I have to.” My knees began to tremble and I dropped to all fours rather than fall flat on my face.
Did I mention that besides being an erudite slob I am also a coward?
“That’s better,” Jenks said. “You’re thinking, rather than just reacting and depending upon your size and strength to win this fight.”
He began climbing my body as he would a mountain. “If you rolled onto your side, I could make better headway on your scales. Not fight gravity.”
Whatever. I obeyed his command and he slithered and hitched himself up, scale by scale, shaking loose a few itchy mites along the way.
Meanwhile, the knight made headway on the door with boulders, nearly as large as myself, banging into it every few minutes. Before Jenks reached my muzzle so I could stand up again, the door crashed to the floor.
“Yeep!” I squeaked and scrambled for a more dignified pose.
“All right, Lea, hand them over!” shouted a scrawny man crouching behind a shield made of translucent dragon scales. He brandished a rusty sword that belonged in a museum. His token armor consisted of motorcycle leathers and a helmet—not very stylish or well-fitting leathers at that. They bagged at his shoulders and butt. He’d had to roll up the pant legs and sleeve cuffs to accommodate their bulk and length to his underdeveloped frame.
Jenks swung from one of my neck fronds as if it were a playground toy. “Hey!” he chortled. “It’s a girl.”
I dipped my head to peer more closely at my invader. The shield was perfectly transparent to my vision. I also hoped to find a way around that shield. Flames were of no use against dragon scales.
If I stalled long enough maybe she’d drop it. It must have weighed a ton and covered the entire length of her body.
“Hand what over?” I boomed, hoping the noise and reverberation would cover the frightened quaver in my voice.
“Your library books. They’re one hundred years overdue. The fines alone are worth a king’s ransom.”
“Yeep!” I gulped. “Library books?”
“You heard me. Hand them over.”
“Look around, girlie, you find ‘em, you can have ‘em,” Jenks challenged her.
She poked her pert nose around the edge of her shield. Her eyes went wide, causing a pair of thick spectacles to slide down her miniature snoz, stopping just short of dropping to the ground.
“By Midas, the great god of hoarders!” She tried reaching for a pile of books, discovered both hands occupied by sword and shield.
I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. How to choose between the treasure of books and defense of her body? While she thought, I tried to come up with a strategy to get rid of her. But if she left here alive she’d tell the world that not only did I not have a great treasure of diamonds and gold, but she’d broadcast to the world and my family what a lousy housekeeper I was, even with a pixie to help dust occasionally.
The librarian/knight finally opted to sheath her rusty old sword and keep her shield between herself and the smoke dribbling out of my muzzle. Rapidly and precisely she straightened two piles, alphabetizing them as she went.
“My name’s Miriam by the way, Miriam de Livres. Some of these books are true rarities. They should be in an atmosphere-controlled room on acid free shelves, not touching each other...” She rambled on about the best way to store and preserve the books. All the while, the square footage behind her shield took on a neatness the likes of which this cave hadn’t seen in centuries.
“This cavern is precisely climate controlled. If you’d been less concerned with overdue fines than where you were you’d have noticed how deep you came into this hidey hole. The temperature and humidity do not vary more than ten percent no matter the weather outside,” I explained to her. “I bought those books new and they are still in pristine condition.”
I puffed out my chest with pride, to disguise the fire building within me. If Miriam of the books lost just a tiny bit of her concentration, I might be able to work a line of flame over or around the shield and she’d be ash. What was one more dead body among the refuse. I just wanted to be done with her and get back to my reading.
“These books are in good condition, despite the dust,” she said in a dazed sort of voice. She skootched closer to my chaise lounge, (recliners don’t fit my body nearly so well as old fainting couches) leaving order in her wake.
I noticed an old favorite among the rows of books that I had forgotten about. I snatched at it with two delicate talons.
Miriam slapped my paw with the flat of her sword. Where did that come from? “Don’t you dare make a mess of these books.”
Chastened I withdrew to sulk on the other side of the chaise. She shifted the shield, still keeping it between us.
Jenks hopped off my muzzle onto my favorite reading chair beneath the crack in the ceiling that allowed a little extra light in. A puff of dust rose around him when he landed.
The librarian stifled a sneeze, still working away in search of “her” books. If possession was nine tenths of the law, then the books should be mine after a century or two had passed.
“Maybe we can work a deal,” Jenks said in a stage whisper meant to induce a sense of privacy but loud enough so I could hear.
I’d hear his quiet words anyway, dragon ears and cave acoustics made this a perfect whispering gallery.
“We let you retrieve your books and take a couple of special rarities and you waive the fines. And you keep this cave a secret.”
Little Miss Neatness tilted her head to listen. Her free hand kept working.
“No! Not my books. You can’t take my books away from me,” I wailed, wringing my forepaws. When did I lose control of this battle?
“Hush,” Jenks admonished me. “I’m saving your ass. You ever tried to match a librarian for stubbornness, determination, and greed for books?”
“Actually, removing some of these books from this cave might damage them irreparably. But it’s a shame scholars don’t have access to them. We could learn so much about history, literature, lost sciences...”
“Scholars?” I asked. A plan began to create a pattern in my brain. “Scholars with grant money to pay for access to research material?”
“Scholars with grant money to pay for someone else to do the research?” Jenks looked pointedly at me.
“Scholars with grant money to pay for solid shelves and a card catalogue,” the librarian confirmed, eyeing me speculatively. A glimmer shone in her eyes. Those brown orbs grew large with excitement.
“Librarians to help with the dusting?” Jenks asked.
Both the librarian and I stared at him in disgust.
“Okay, I’ll dust, you catalogue and shelve.” Jenks pointed to Miriam. “And you do research.” He shifted that accusatory finger toward me.
“Agreed.” Miriam finally dropped the shield and held out her hand.
Jenks brushed against it, the closest thing to a handshake he could manage.
Then they both turned to stare at me. I extended a talon the size of Miriam’s hand. She grasped it and gave it a yank. I guess that sufficed for shaking on the deal.
“Can I get back to my reading now?” I asked plaintively. That was of course my primary objective.
“No!” both Miriam and Jenks screamed.
“If I haul out one armload of garbage, can I read a book?”
“I don’t know. How fast do you read?” Miriam looked pointedly at the rotting magician against the far wall.
“Too slow,” Jenks said.
“Two piles of garbage per book, and you have to let us put the book back where it belongs when you are done,” Miriam insisted, hands on hips.
“Which of course means I don’t have to put it back!” I chortled.
“Would you anyway?” Miriam asked. A delightful smudge of dirt graced her pert little nose.
“Well no. I get to pick which book I read next, though.”
They both sighed and nodded.
I grabbed a stack of anthropology texts ranging from the Mayan pyramids to Hindu polytheism.
“One book at a time. Your check out limit is cut until we get this place clean and we have money coming in.” Miriam gently removed four of the five books from my hands.
“Think about it, Your Laziness Lea,” Jenks consoled me. “The sooner we get this place ready for company, the sooner you can indulge in reading anything and everything. Then you can write book reports, you can answer questions about what you just read. You’ll be acknowledged as the world’s greatest authority. People will actually pay you to read.”
I grabbed the nearest pile of skeletons and rotting fabric and practically danced to the cave mouth. “Where do I put it?” I asked.
“Sort it into recyclable categories and dump the non-biodegradable stuff on the plateau above the cliff. That will mislead stupid, uncouth, illiterate adventurers into searching for your treasure further up the mountain,” Miriam called through the entrance tunnel.
Good idea. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I carefully picked through the stuff to make certain I didn’t accidentally discard any books.
Oops! I found a book of alchemy diagrams amongst the dead magician’s bones. I peeked over my shoulder to make sure Jenks and Miriam weren’t watching. Then I tucked the book amongst my neck frills for safe keeping. What would it hurt to just look through it to make certain it wasn’t damaged?
In loving memory of
Miriam Bentley Radford
She taught many, including me
That reading is the greatest gift
you can give a child.
This story originally appeared in Fantastical Ramblings a collection of short fiction by Irene Radford.