Phara studied the hand-drawn map as she stood at the edge of a ravine. It was steep here but sloped down, through the cactus and the acacia, to a spot that at the moment, was still in the shade. The wind pulled at the scarf that covered the lower half of her face. “Shit.” She tucked the map into the pocket inside her shearling coat, dust flying into her eyes in the steady wind. “Damn wind,” she muttered.
She studied the way down. One misstep and she would roll down, hitting every sharp-edged boulder and cactus on the way to the bottom. Phara adjusted the scarf again and using her pole, tested the first step before putting her weight on it. Not a guarantee, but better than stepping blindly on a bit of ground that would spill her to the bottom.
Halfway down she rested and sipped from her canteen—drinking the grit that coated her mouth. One more problem, it was half empty. If she didn’t find water soon, her trek would be for nothing. Her bones would be lying in the ravine bottom with all the rest. Sighing she capped the canteen tightly and secured it to her belt before edging her way farther down.
At the bottom she rested, legs quivering. The other side of this wide valley should be her destination. She hoped so. It had been madness to take on this journey. It had already cost her her brother’s life. The wind was less, here in the bottom, so she left the scarf loosely draped around her neck and plodded on. The mage had better be right. If I’m on a fool’s quest I’m going to haunt that old man for the rest of his life.
The sun rose over the edge of the ridge as she reached her destination. This has to be the right place. Look at the size of those bones! Leg bones were bigger than she was. Skulls twice the length of her body. So many. The mage was right. This is a dragon graveyard.
Phara prodded the piles. It looked like others had been here, the bones were scattered. Yes, there were human skeletons here too. Smashed skulls, broken legs, she left them alone. Bad luck or bad partners, she couldn’t say. There was no point disturbing them and bringing their final curses home to roost on her. Close to the cliff face she found a skeleton that looked nearly complete. Perhaps the other searchers never made it this far, running out of luck or betrayed before this dragon’s remains could be reached.
She dropped to her knees next to the standing rib cage. Phara crawled into the center, where the heart should be. Using her stick she dug through the drifted sand, deeper and deeper until she hit the huge spine. To the left, maybe it fell through the ribs to the ground. The sand kept sliding back into the hole until she shoved it back with her feet. Come on. Come on. Give it up, dragon.
Her mouth was so dry her tongue hurt. Grit crunched between her teeth. “Where is it?” She had to watch that, talking to herself when she got back. The proctors would mark her a crazy woman and drag her off. No water till you find it. Dig, damn it! She searched from rib to rib, digging two feet down. Maybe it’s on the other side? Phara cursed herself and the mage and began again on the right. The sun beat down now it was high enough in the sky, so she stopped digging long enough to pull the scarf up over her head to keep it from baking and over her mouth to keep some of the dust she was raising out of her mouth
One rib, two, three. Phara wanted to cry but couldn’t waste the water. It has to be here, right? The skeleton hasn’t been disturbed. She dug another foot to her right. Maybe the mage was lying. Maybe there’s no such thing as a heart stone. It would serve me right to be lost on a cursed dragon chase and die right here between this sorry creature’s ribs. Aggravated with herself and the mage and her brother for dying and leaving her out here all alone she slammed the end of her stick into the ground and heard it bang against something not sand or bone. She stopped; stick raised for the next strike.
Carefully she stuck it into the ground. It slid to the left, into the sand. Heart racing, she dropped her staff and dug with her hands. Yes! It was cool and smooth to the touch. On her belly she reached into the hole and cleared the sand. It was revealed. The sun glinted off of it, a color of red she’d never seen. Brilliant yet dark, like a dark, red, wine. Phara lifted it from the ground and wiped it clean with an end of her scarf. The mage was right. The dragon heart turned to stone. “It’s soul,” the mage said. She sat up and rocked with it clutched to her chest. Finally. It was hers if she could get it back to the city.
The King would pay a huge sum for it. She could get her father out of prison. Get medicine for her mother and buy her little sister and brother back from the slavers. Tears streaked dusty tracks down her cheeks. It was going to be hard. The stone was too large to hide in her coat. It would have to be disguised as she dragged it all the way back home.
I’ll make a travois from dragon finger bones. That will get me most of the way home. I’ll cover it with rags. Yes. I can do this. She let herself sip some water and plan. Then it was time to get busy. She was going to buy her family back and no one would stop her.