The exclamation came from Sarah at my coming up to them. They stood at the back of the mass of people that crowded around the bottom of Dragon’s Hill. Everyone from the bar and a few tag-alongs from the homes had gathered to try their luck at the chance of a fortune. Victoria and her boyfriend stood at the front of the pack with a smirk on both their faces.
Dragon’s Hill was a gently-sloped ridge that climbed up some five hundred feet above the valley floor, though small compared to the towering mountains that lorded over its backside. The dirt path leading up to the top was surrounded on both sides by a wide patch of grass, but beyond those strips stood a wilderness of stones big and small, and the creeping encroaches of the forest that covered the steeper parts of the slope. The trees and the winding path blocked a view of the end, but I knew that near the top was a small plateau where the statue of the dragon stood among the creeping vines, waiting for visitors to admire its forlorn beauty.
The crowd quieted as Luca stepped out from behind a large boulder that sat to one side of the bottom of the path. He held up his hands and smiled at all present. “I thank you all for coming to humor me.”
A voice shouted from the group. “Humor nothing, we want the crown!” The crowd erupted in good humor.
Luca smiled and inclined his head. “Still, I thank you all the same. Now I shall lay down the rules.”
Victoria wrinkled her nose. “What rules?”
“Merely a few customs of the Dragon Run,” he assured her as his eyes seemed to twinkle with a strange green light. “Anyone may make the attempt, but you cannot help another up the mountain.”
Victoria’s boyfriend crossed his arms over his broad chest and snorted. “As if anybody needs any help.”
Luca acknowledged him with a slight incline of his head before he continued. “As it is, that is a rule. All participants must also remain on the trail. You cannot take a shortcut to reach the top, otherwise you will be disqualified.”
One of the women near me snorted and turned to their companion where she lowered her voice to a whisper. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Luca’s cool gaze settled on her among all others. “I will know if you cheat.” The woman’s eyes widened in shock before she averted them from his accusing scrutiny. “Those are the rules. Does anyone have any questions?”
Victoria lifted her chin up. “Where do I stop to pick up my prize?”
“The finish line will be at Dragon’s Ascending.”
A murmur of confusion arose from the crowd. Luca only chuckled. “The statue of the dragon in the old fountain.”
“I knew that!”
Bill leaned close to Sarah and grinned up at her. “If I drop by the wayside you have my permission to leave me to die.”
She poorly hid a smile as she slapped his arm. “Don’t be silly, Bill. I’ve already been given permission by the nice man to do that.”
He started back and feigned a hurt expression. “My dear! How could you?”
“One step at a time.”
I couldn’t help but smile at their banter. It made me regret that I didn’t have someone by my side to do the same.
Luca raised his arms and the conversations that had sparked up at his rules died down. “There is one last rule. You have until the hour of midnight to reach the top.”
Victoria snorted. “Like we told you earlier, it only takes ten minutes to get up there.”
A sly smile slipped onto Luca’s lips. “Does it? Then you won’t have any trouble reaching the Dragon Ascending.” He stepped to one side and swept his arm up the path. “Now begin!”
The crowd turned into a stampede as they rushed up the path. Luca had to scoot a little further off to avoid being trampled by the eager hikers with golden greed in their eyes. Even the wonderful couple scampered ahead of me, though Sarah looked over her shoulder. I gave her a wave and a smile as I set off on my slow pace.
Luca stood at the bottom with his curious eyes watching the backsides of the stampede he’d created. The last of them were nearly out of sight around the last bend, though to be fair that was only twenty yards from the start line.
I strolled past Luca, but something in his eyes made me pause. “Aren’t you coming?”
His eyes turned to me and twinkled with mischief. “I know of a shortcut.” Those same gleeful eyes looked me over and their expression softened. “Might I add that I’m very glad to see you here.”
I snorted and nodded at the top of the hill. “You’d better enjoy it because I don’t expect to be seen at very many places along this path.”
There was something in his expression that I couldn’t quite read. A secret, maybe? Or maybe it was just foolish hope. Mine more than his. “That remains to be seen, but-” He took my fingers in his hand and pressed a light kiss to the top, “-may you have wings to give you flight.”
I blinked at him as he turned and vanished behind the rock. “Wings?” I repeated to the quiet air. I took a few steps up the path so I passed the boulder, and curiosity made me pause and look back.
Luca had vanished. There wasn’t a sign of him behind the rock.
I shrugged and continued on my way. I’d had all my life to pay attention to my heart. For me every step up a hill was a strain waiting to turn into something else. Sometimes I wondered if those speed bumps in the parking lots were meant as an obstacle course for me and not the cars.
This night, however, was different. Everything felt different. My heart pattered away, but there was no stretch of the old sac, no strain of every valve. I felt so good it was like being able to fly.
“Like having wings. . .” I murmured as I recalled Luca’s strange prayer to me.
Heck, I even picked up the pace and before I knew it I’d rounded the first corner. Rounded it, and tripped over the first victim of the hill climb. I let out a yelp and tumbled to the dirt trail.
A wheezing voice came from behind me. “I’m so sorry, Diana!”
I turned around and found that it was Bill seated only halfway off the path. His face was as red as a beet and his chest heaved up and down. Sweat had soaked through his clothes, and the tell-tale stains covered the front of his shirt and were tucked away under his arms.
He gave me a sheepish grin. “I know I shouldn’t be sitting here, but I thought I was the last one up here, and-well-I can’t seem to go any farther.”
I stretched out my arms to him. “Did you want some help up?”
He shook his head and waved his hand up the trail. “No, you go on without me. I’d look stupid in a crown, anyway. Now go on.” He gave one of my legs a light push. “You’d look good in it.”
I patted him on the shoulder and continued on my way. There was only a short distance to the next bend in the serpentine path, and I almost tripped over another victim of exhaustion. I caught myself this time, but my stumble made me crash into a different person than the one who had tripped me.
I grabbed their shoulders to keep from falling and looked up. My jaw hit the ground. Two dozen people sat scattered about the sides of the trail. Most looked sheepish, some angry, and a few were fuming. All of them showed the same symptoms as Bill, though many were in much better shape, and many of them were locals.
“What the hell is up with this trail?” one of them whined as she crossed her arms over her chest. “I just did it the other day and had no problem.”
Her friend nudged her with an elbow. “Maybe it was that donut this morning.”
The rest of the crowd burst into laughter, though more than one had a look of confusion on their faces.
“Hey!” one of them shouted at me as they pointed up the trail. “Get along with you! You’re actually in the running, and we don’t want Victoria to win!”
“Get a move on, Diana!”
I gave them a salute and passed through their number, feeling both more confident and more confused about what was going on.