Hannah, Zachary, and Sarah Emily are spending the summer at their great-aunt Mehitabel's house on faraway Lonely Island. There, in a cave hidden high above the ocean, they discover a fabulous creature: a glittering three-headed golden dragon with a kind heart, an unpredictable temper, and a memory that spans 20,000 years. Transported by the magic of the dragon's stories, the children meet Mei-lan, a young girl in ancient China; nineteenth-century cabin boy Jamie Pritchett; and, in more recent times, Hitty and her brother, Will, who survive a frightening plane crash on a desert island. In this fluidly written novel, Rebecca Rupp explores what three children from the present learn from the past — and from an unlikely but wise and generous friend.
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They strode along, single file because the old path was so narrow. Sarah Emily hummed as she walked. Zachary paused every once in a while to check directions on his compass. Hannah dabbed sunscreen on her nose. Soon Zachary and Sarah Emily were hungry again — "I can't believe you two, after eating all those doughnuts," said Hannah — so they paused, just at the foot of the hill, for a sandwich (peanut butter and Mrs. Jones's homemade strawberry jam), a cookie, and a drink of lemonade. Zachary's freckles began to come out in the sun. Sarah Emily crumpled the last sandwich wrapper and tucked it back into Zachary's pack. "Let's go to the very top," she said, "and look for China."
"Wrong direction and wrong ocean," said Hannah. "Try France."
"Or Greenland," said Zachary. "Last one to the top is a rotten egg!" He grabbed the pack and began to run, bounding up the little path, winding in and out around scattered boulders.
Hannah and Sarah Emily-shouting "Hey!" and "Wait for me!"-dashed after him.
The hill was steeper than it looked. Soon the children were breathless, and one after another they slowed, panting, to a walk. They were hot, and the backs of Sarah Emily's legs began to ache. They staggered up the last few feet and collapsed, laughing, against the huge heap of piled rocks that formed the very peak of Drake's Hill. Zachary raised his fist in triumph. "Excelsior!" he shouted.
The view from the hill was spectacular. From their height, they could trace the coast of the island and gaze far out to sea. "I feel like I've just climbed Mount Everest," said Hannah.
"Let's get right up on top of these rocks," said Zachary. "Then we'll be able to see everything in both directions."
They scrambled up the side of the great heap of gray boulders, scrabbling for footholds as they climbed. The rocks were piled like giant jumbled steps. There were short heaving climbs — Sarah Emily, whose legs were short, needed to be boosted by Zachary and Hannah — then expanses of level flatness, then more steep climbs. At the last flat step, as they approached the peak, they came to a smooth, sheer wall, higher than Hannah's head, with not so much as a crack or a crevice in sight. "Let's go back," said Sarah Emily. "It's too high."
But Zachary refused to give up.
"Maybe we can get up from the other side," he said.
The step — more like a rocky shelf — curved around to the right, almost like a walkway circling the very top of the hill. The children cautiously edged their way around it. Sarah Emily, who hated heights, refused to look down. On the north side of the rock face, the shelf suddenly widened out into a broad platform, high above and overlooking the empty sea.
"Look at that!" gasped Sarah Emily.
"A cave!" said Zachary.
At the back of the stone platform, a wide gaping opening led back into darkness.
"Let's go inside," said Zachary eagerly, but Sarah Emily hung back.
"Let's not," she said. "There could be anything in there. Bears or something. And besides, it smells funny."
Zachary and Hannah sniffed the air. Near the cave entrance, there was a strange odor: the smell of charcoal and smoke, with a hint of something tangier, spicy, alien.
"Probably just old campfires," said Zachary. "Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Jones used to come up here and roast marshmallows." He peered blindly into the darkness, then turned to fumble in his backpack. "Just a minute," he said. "I brought my flashlight."
He switched it on and cautiously stepped forward into the cave. Sarah Emily and Hannah crowded behind him. The three children, clinging to each other, edged slowly inward. As they moved into the cave, the sound of the sea abruptly shut off, as though someone had thrown a massive switch. The cave floor seemed to slant downward into the hill, and inside, it felt enormous; there was a sense of soaring subterranean spaces. Zachary's flashlight barely penetrated the gloom. "It didn't look this big from the outside," Sarah Emily whispered. Groping, they stretched out their arms, left and right, to the sides.
"Can anybody feel a wall anywhere?" Zachary asked softly. Nobody could.
"This place is simply huge," said Hannah. "The whole inside of the hill must be hollow."
"It feels endless," said Sarah Emily nervously.
The children shuffled forward, feeling gingerly with their feet. "There could be deep holes," said Sarah Emily. The strange sharp smell — smoke? sulfur? — got stronger.
"You know what I wonder?" said Zachary. "Where did this hill get its name anyway? Was the sea captain who built the house named Drake? How come it's called Drake's Hill?"
There was a sudden shifting sound from the back of the cave, a heavy sandpapery scraping noise. Then there came a soft hiss in the darkness — the sound of a lighted blowtorch, thought Zachary — and a red-and-yellow flare of flame. The interior of the cave leaped into light. Before the children's astonished eyes, a vast expanse of gold flashed and glittered. There before them lay a long reptilian body, curled comfortably on the cave floor, with a coiled golden tail, ending in a flat arrowhead-shaped point. Two eyes-sharp slits of jade green-glared at them out of the darkness.
"It is called Drake's Hill, young man," said a deep, raspy voice, "because drake is an ancient and honorable name for dragon. The hill is named after me."
THE DRAGON OF LONELY ISLAND by Rebecca Rupp. Copyright (c) 2006 by Rebecca Rupp. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.