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X Marks the Spot

Kat Otis lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there's no country music involved. Her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress XXVI. She can be found online at katotis.com or on Twitter as @kat_otis.

I nudged the corpse with the toe of my boot. "Looks like he froze to death, poor sod."
"That's what you get, wandering these mountains unprepared." Ranulf snagged the corpse's rucksack and began rifling through it.
Shivering, I tucked my hands into my armpits. Spring was well underway, but the mountain heights were still freezing. The sooner we descended to the valley to sell our furs, the happier I'd be. "Anything good?"
Ranulf pulled out an old piece of parchment. "Just this." He unfolded it on the ground to reveal a map. "Seems pretty accurate. Might be worth something."
I bent closer to get a better look. "What's that symbol?"
"Looks almost like an X."
"As in X marks the spot?" I laughed. "Looks like we've got ourselves a gen-u-ine treasure map!"
Ranulf snatched the map off the ground. "I saw it first!"
"Peace!" I held up my hands, still grinning. "We don't even know if there is a treasure, yet." Ranulf just glowered at me, as if we hadn't been trapping partners for the past five years, and my grin faded. Ranulf had always been a bit paranoid--a trait that had saved our lives more than once--but I'd never known him to be greedy before. "Okay, okay, I don't mind an uneven split. Say, seventy-thirty?"
Ranulf glared for a moment longer, then grunted agreement and folded up the map before I could look at it again. "We'll need to head south of the road a ways when we get to the bottom of the pass." He rose, abandoning the rucksack and the rest of its contents without a second glance.
I couldn't help looking back at the corpse. "What about him?"
"Ground's frozen solid, can't bury him even if we wanted to waste the time." Ranulf slipped the map into his own rucksack and slung it over his shoulders again. "Come on. Let's find that treasure."
The map led us to a meadow in the middle of the woods, a full day's journey south of the road. Or, at least, that's what Ranulf claimed. I hadn't been able to get a good look at the map since he found it. Still, it matched the general area I remembered seeing the symbol in, so I was careful not to even imply I had doubts. Ranulf had grown even more touchy about the map with each passing hour.
"So, what now? We dig?" I looked around, frowning. It was all well and good to say this meadow was the right spot, but where, exactly, was the treasure supposed to be? The ground was still pretty hard; if we had to dig up the entire meadow, it would take at least a week, maybe longer.
Ranulf dropped his rucksack on the ground and hefted the shovel he'd bought from a farmhouse we passed three days earlier. "I dig."
"Fine, you dig." I looked around for a good place to sit and wait, confident Ranulf's resolve to dig alone wouldn't last long.
Then I noticed he was headed straight towards me.
"Um, Ranulf, what are you doing?"
He took a firmer grip on the shovel and swung it at me.
Yelping, I ducked, feeling the breeze of the shovel's passage inches from my head. "Have you gone mad?"
"I saw it first!" Ranulf raised the shovel, and swung a second time. "It's mine, you can't have it!"
I rolled away, scrabbling desperately to unsheathe my skinning knife. Ranulf roared wordlessly and charged after me.
As I ducked his third swing, he tripped and practically flung himself on my knife. After that, it was distressingly similar to gutting a deer.
The ground was hard, but I buried Ranulf anyway. It seemed like the right thing to do. Though I did pull out the map before I threw his rucksack in with him--there was no point in letting a perfectly good treasure go to waste.
Ranulf hadn't lied, the symbol was right in the middle of the meadow where he'd died, but even as I watched, it faded away. I rubbed my eyes, to make sure I wasn't imagining things. The symbol was definitely gone.
I spread out the map, frantically searching every inch until I found the symbol again, now inked over the town of Ingeborg, where Ranulf and I always sold our furs. I examined the spot more closely, trying to figure out why the symbol had moved, and that's when I noticed something.
The symbol wasn't an X.
It was a pair of crossed bones.
I studied the map for a little while longer, then folded it up and stuffed it in my rucksack. Ingeborg was almost three days' walk, north-by-northwest, from my current location. I oriented myself so that I was facing Ingeborg.
Then I turned and headed the opposite direction.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Author Comments

In the classic treasure hunt story, there are usually clever traps that the heros have to work their way around. If the bad guys don't set off the traps, then there might be skeletons hanging around, to demonstrate just how deadly those traps can be. For every person who follows a treasure map and wins riches, there are dozens more whose adventures don't end so well. It got me to thinking--what *does* that X on the map really stand for...?

- Kat Otis
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