The hole, setting there in the middle of the clearing, was by no means small, but the little, wide-eyed girl of thirteen years was still amazed that something as big as a dragon could've fit through it.
Penny was a peasant in the town. She had left the city's gates to fetch water for her family when she sighted a strange trail of scales and prints leading off toward the forest. And then she had seen it—a glittering, sky-blue dragon with magnificent leathery wings and blazing green eyes. It had been only a second before it had slithered into the burrow in a final flash of radiance.
Now Penny stood beside the hole, her straight profile outlined in the setting sun, confident, but tense—like a tiger waiting to pounce, dirty-blond wisps of her hair escaping from a messy bun in the evening breeze. Her empty water jug lay upturned and forgotten. The people of her city dreaded dragons, their emotions mixed with fear and anger. But even Penny, after seeing a dragon in its most innocent form, could not blame them. Only thirteen years had passed since the dragons had come.
There had been nine of them, all fiery red, with hot, searing breath and wide, hungry mouths. They had killed Penny's sister, mother, and father. She could not remember any of them, though, because that was the night she was born, two hours before her family was killed. Now, all that remained of her relatives were her uncle, aunt, adopted two-year-old brother and her grandparents, who all lived in the same mud hut.
Penny raced among the tall, ominous pines and oaks, their snagging branches snatching at her skin and clothing. She only slowed to a steady trot once the trees thinned and she could see the village gates ahead. The village was small and nearly everyone knew everyone. But ever since the fateful day when Penny was born, each person had grown independent and sharp. Penny raced among the small, familiar houses until she saw the tiny mud-brick cottage with a thatched roof that was her own. After murmuring a brief apology for not getting water to her hawkeyed, hands-on-her-hips kind of grandma, she trotted briskly to her small room in search of a good book.
But thoughts of the sky-blue dragon slowly led her to the window, looking out toward the dark forest. Through all of what Penny had experienced in her thirteen short years, she had a will tougher than most young girls. But this—it pulled on her as if by magic and soon she was sprinting toward the wood again. She soon came upon the hole, but this time she didn't stop.
She dove right in, and blackness shrouded over her thoughts.
* * *
Penny woke up feeling like she had too many of Grandma's cakes the night before. Trying in vain a mess of disheveled hair, she turned her sharp chin to a noise in the door.
There sat the dragon, its glittering eyes focusing on the young girl. Finally, in a deep, throaty voice, he said, "I've been waiting."
Penny sat speechless with wonder. Before she could think of the strangeness of what he had said, he croaked again, "What is your name?"
"Where do you come from?"
"The village." Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Are you scared?"
"I can make you happier." The dragon's eyes seemed to smile.
Penny's eyes flared in anger. "Who said I wasn't happy?" she snapped angrily. She stood as if to leave.
"Please," the dragon sighed, rustling his wings. "I am lonely. Stay" And then, "I will show you my world."
"But . . . " Penny objected, but then a burst of color flashed into her mind. She cried in astonishment, and as more images splashed across her thoughts, she realized that the dragon could not only speak, but he could pass on pictures into another's mind, too. Into Penny's mind sparked dazzling mountains, sparkling rivers, and creatures of all different kinds. And suddenly they stopped. Penny only realized that she was closing her eyes then, and she looked up, blinking, at the dragon, who gave a kind smile back.
"That was . . . wonderful," Penny stammered quietly.
The dragon stretched his wings, then calmly asked, "Would you like to live there? With me?"
Penny thought of the astounding offer. Her thoughts returned to the pictures—the castles, and treasure, pirates and mermaids and lakes and . . . everything imaginable. But how? How could there be a place so . . . perfect? But, she thought, Grandma had always said there was a perfect place—later. But was this what she had meant? Thinking of her grandma made her thoughts whirl to Stefan, the small outcast who her family adopted, his pudgy cheeks and tumbling chuckle. And of tight-lipped Grandma, "pleasingly plump" Aunt Mabel, tall, dangerous-looking Uncle Ted, and old Gramps, who couldn't walk or remember anything. "Not much to speak of," Penny said dismally to herself.
But they were enough.
Her sharp complexion turned toward the dragon and she stated flatly, "I'm sorry. But I refuse."
The dragon let out a strange human-like scream. Then, his textured scales turned into folds of smooth, silky black robes. His green eyes turned dark and dangerous as his snout folded in and a beard sprouted from a jutting chin. And there stood a man—a magician—with an evil glint in his eye.
"Penny, you're the last one of a long line. Your father was the twenty-third in that line and you, the twenty-fourth. If you haven't figured it out by now, I plan to have you eliminated from existence."
She had. Her first instincts told her to turn and run, but she wanted to learn more. "Why are you doing this?" Her voice was confident. The only thing betraying her fear was in her eyes.
"One of your ancient ancestors and I made a deal—and he didn't keep his end of the deal up, as did I. You can figure out the rest. Be assured, it would have been a much slower, more painful death if you had not resisted the temptation to come to `my world.'"
"Did you send the red dragons to our village the night my family died?" Penny's voice quavered.
Penny did not need any further knowledge of the sadistic magician. She turned and bolted for the hole. The wizard raised a finger and it disappeared. Penny turned, helpless, and then dove into a roll, grabbing a handful of sand and throwing it into the magician's face. As he wiped grit from his eyes and spat it out of his mouth, he lost his concentration and the hole reappeared for an instant. It was all Penny needed. She catapulted through, appearing in the middle of the forest. From her position, she could hear the magician clambering through the hole after her, cursing all the while. In a final act of desperation, she took her abandoned water jug and shoved it through the hole, hearing the satisfying clunk of the clay jug meeting the magician's skull.
Without another thought, the girl turned and tore through the forest all the way to her village. Stopping briefly at the door of her house, she barged in, sighting her grandma, and in a bound swept her off the floor in a big hug.
Their arms entwined and, tears streaming down Penny's grubby face, she cried, "I love you, Grandma. I love you."