Set sail on the high seas with this collection of 21 unforgettable short stories featuring dashing rogues, daring rebels, and wily pirates searching for treasures of all kinds, including a forgotten journal, a heavenly sword, a young girl's lucky sock, and even the Fountain of Youth. Some pirates are familiar—complete with parrots, peg legs, and eye patches—but most are unique: a twelve-year-old computer hacker, a heroic rabbit on an unusual quest, a clump of cancer cells, and an alien setting sail among the stars.X Marks the Spot: An Anthology of Treasure and Theft is about those men and women who live on the fringes of society, who are beholden to no man, no law, and who always have one eye on the horizon.So grab your map and set your headings. There are adventures to be had, mateys, and treasures to be found.This anthology is the fifth volume produced by the alumni of the Superstars Writing Seminars, and all royalties benefit the Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship Fund.
"A quick new adventure with every story. Exactly what I was hoping it was. Great read."– Amazon Review
"Some great stories in here by great authors. It'll hold you over until Pirates of the Caribbean Six or whatever the next one is…"– Amazon Review
The Wish Shore
Even the smallest, plainest of stones can hold a wish. That's what Adria's grandfather had told her every morning as they walked the wish shore.
When she was younger, she'd longed for a pretty stone like the girls from the white-walled town inland threw when they made the daylong trek to the shore. A quartz or an onyx, perhaps. Even a mica-speckled rock would do. But all she had were the plain, gray-and-white rocks littering the shore. As the years passed and her grand wishes never came to be, she accepted the truth. She was a fishergirl, destined to marry a fisherman and live in a salt-stained hut by the shore. No rock would change that, no matter how fine it was.
But whenever Grandfather handed her a stone on their morning walks, she would whisper a wish into it to make him happy, her lips brushing against the water-smoothed surface, and throw it out to sea. Even after they sent Grandfather's body back to Sky-Mother on a bed of blue-tinged flames, she still walked the shore and, if a stone caught her eye, she'd give it one of her wishes. Adria made sure to keep her wishes simple—for a good catch, for a clear night, for her voice to sound sweet at festival time. And if the wishes only came true partway or not at all, well, she didn't really believe in the wish shore anyway.
Just a few days before Sea-Father's festival, one stone caught her eye. Pale white with a black crack snaking through it, uniformly shaped, and sunbaked—it was just the sort of stone Grandfather would have picked. Catching up her skirts, she bent down and plucked the stone from its fellows before the sea could take it away. She rubbed her thumb down the black line, enjoying the flaw in the otherwise featureless rock.
Straightening up, holding in her mind the wish she would whisper, her eyes caught on a dark shape far out to sea. She blinked, and the shape formed into a boat flying black sails. The stone tumbled from her nerveless fingers, landing with a small plunk into the water.
The raiders' distinctive black sails were a children's tale, spoken over a crackling fire by an old-timer who'd spent his youth trying to make his fortune on a trading vessel. Even in the stories, the raiders only attacked fat merchant ships filled with gold and fine cloth. They didn't come for tiny fishing villages on a small island in the middle of the sea. Yet there they were, growing closer with each rattling breath she drew.
She knew she should scream and wave her hands to the fishing boats out to sea—the ones carrying her father and brothers—but another part of her, the part that knew there was no Sea-Father granting wishes to each silly fishergirl who threw a rock into his domain, understood that it was already too late. The fishing boats were too far out, and the black sails were moving too fast. They move like ghosts, the old-timer had said. And so she sprinted back to the village, hoping against hope that her legs could outrun the sails.
But when she reached the pickets that marked the edge of the village and glanced back, her cry of alarm choked off in a sob. The familiar silhouettes of her family's fishing boats roared with flames, pillars of thick, black smoke obscuring the clear, blue sky. The black sails were already ahead of her loved ones' pyres and moving alarmingly fast, almost to the wish shore. She would never make it to the white-walled town in time.
Her wish stone lay on the rocky shore, tumbled by the tide and the heavy boots of the raiders, forgotten.
"Yer a wind-singer, aintcha?"
Adria drew back from the raider's reeking breath, stinking of chew-leaf and rotting fish, as far as she could in the hold's close quarters. Kara, the only other captive from her village, tightened her near-permanent grip on Adria's hand, while the woman to the other side of Adria merely leaned away. Adria ducked her head so that her long dark hair, matted and salt-stained after weeks at sea, would fall in front of her face, but it was too late. He had seen.
The raider squatted to get a better look at her, pushing her hair back and grabbing her chin to tilt her face up to his. Putting on a show of bravery for young Kara, Adria held the leering gaze of his one eye, the other covered with a leather patch.
He jabbed a finger at her cheek, where the sign of her family was inked in blue. "That's the sign, right? I had a woman once from your parts. She said your kind could fill a sail on the stillest of days. Bet that's not all you can make swell." He smacked his lips, thin and pale under his scraggly beard.
Adria fisted her hands in her damp skirt—it was always damp these days, since she and Kara had been spared the raiders' knives and forced into this stinking, swaying hold—so that she would not strike him. Lashing out would only earn her, and most likely Kara, another beating. But when he poked her cheek again with his grubby finger, it took everything she had not to snap her teeth at him.
"Oy! You deaf, girl?" he asked, curling his hand into a fist.
"It's just a superstition," she mumbled. "I sing at Sea-Father's festival and the like. I've never been out to open sea."
His beady, dark eye searched her face, but he'd find no trace of a lie there. Then his single-eyed gaze moved over to Kara. "This true? Is it all rubbish?"
Kara's wide brown eyes flickered to the raider, to Adria, then back.
No, no, no, Adria begged her silently. At barely ten years old, the girl was too young to understand that Sea-Father was just a myth, that the tales she'd heard of wind-singers calling up his favor were nothing more than that. Please say yes. Please.
Kara lifted her chin, and Adria's heart sank. She knew that look, had stared it down ever since the girl had been a toddler, marching around the beach and declaring it all for Sea-Father against her imaginary enemies.
"You better leave her be!" the girl said. "The wind-singers are Sea-Father's own children, from his love of the sea-maid, and he doesn't take kindly to any who hurt them! Her songs will bring a storm like none you've ever seen, and then you'll be sorry!"
Oh, sweet girl, how I wish that was true.
The raider bared his teeth, what few were left. "Ay, well, superstitions come from somewhere. Let's have you up, then."
He pried Adria from Kara's grip, ignoring the girl's cries, and dragged her to the ladder that led to the deck. He slapped her backside just as her hands touched the deck, sending her sprawling. Rough laughter chorused from the other raiders, and her face burned.
"What's this, Holger?"
A man swaggered up in that strange bowlegged walk all the raiders seemed to share, clothed in black tatters that were in slightly better condition than the rest of the crew's. His beard was trimmed closer than Holger's ratty mess, though Adria had still never seen so many men with such unkempt beards. She thought of how Grandfather would carefully slick fish oil through his each morning until it shone, and how they'd laughed when her youngest brother, Tadd, had proudly smeared the oil across the peach fuzz dotting his cheeks.
Holger shoved her once more, bringing her nearly chest-to-chest with the captain. He stank of sweat and salt.
"She's a wind-singer, Cap. Figured she could sing us up a bit of wind, get us back to familiar waters." There was a desperation underlying Holger's voice that worried Adria.
The captain looked down his crooked nose at her, his lip curled in a sneer. "This true, girl?"
"I tried to tell him," she said, her voice barely dribbling past her lips. "Wind-singing is just an old story, a tradition for festivals. It doesn't actually work."
Grandfather had been the last wind-singer in the family, and Adria had agreed to take on the mantle for love of him, nothing more. She'd never believed she had the power to call up winds or calm storms; even Grandfather had admitted that, when he'd tried as a youth, no wind had come at his call. The captain's skeptical expression seemed to agree with her, but enough of the men had heard Holger's claim and clustered closer, eagerness glinting in their eyes.
"Let 'er sing, Cap!"
"We could use the wind!"
The hungry gazes of the raiders passing over her made her sweat. Adria noticed the dark circles under their eyes, the pinched looks on their faces. This, pieced together with the strangeness of the raid on her village and the raw, rotting grain the women were served each day, made the whole picture clear.
These men were lost, blown off course and running low on provisions. She'd already been warned by some of the other women that they were meant to be sold as slaves at the next port the raiders docked in, as they were the only goods worth coin on this cursed ship. That was why the men hadn't done more than touch Kara or Adria. That was why she and Kara had been spared the knife, when the old fisherwives and the elders and the young boys had all been slain.
These men knew nothing of mercy, and hunger would have only sharpened their cruelty. What would they do when they realized she couldn't sing the wind?
The captain was already nodding, though, and pointing to the bow. "Have her try out there. After our cursed luck, I'll take what backwater magic we can find."
Holger shoved her across the rocking deck, ignoring her protests as the raiders followed after. Adria clutched the railing to keep her balance and turned her back on the men and their ravenous eyes. All around her was sparkling blue water, stretching endlessly in every direction. It would have been beautiful, but she understood the danger in an empty horizon. How much longer did they have before the men starting pitching the extra mouths overboard?
There was no wind to speak of, the sails hanging loose and forlorn from the mast. When she merely stood, gazing out at the empty water, Holger gave her another shove, flattening her against the rail.
"Sing, girl, or I'll make you wish you had," he growled.
Adria licked the taste of salt from her lips as her mind scrambled over what to sing. Nervous and unwilling to test Holger's patience, she decided on the song that opened the summer festival. It was almost time for it, after all, or had it already passed? She cleared her throat, wishing for a cup of water, and began to sing.
"Oh, Father, oh, Father, where have you gone?"
Her own father was buried beneath the waves, his bones resting in the sand along with her brothers'. Adria squeezed her stinging eyes shut and forced herself onward.
"Our nets, our nets, long for fish but hold none."
There were no nets for Adria to weave anymore. No more days in the common hall, shoulder to shoulder with her friends, singing songs as their callused fingers deftly caught and knotted the flax. No more memories of how her mother, long dead, had shown her those knots, over and over until she could tie them with her eyes closed.
"Our sails, our sails, lie dead on their lines."
And may they stay dead, Adria wished fervently. She thought of young Kara and the horror that awaited her if they found land. Better the watery embrace of the sea, or slow starvation, than that living hell.
"Oh, Father, oh, Father, now is your time."
The rest of the words blended together, and her last note held for a long time, floating back to her on the waves. Adria blinked against the bright sunlight reflecting on the ocean's glassy surface as sweat dripped down her spine.
Not so much as a breeze rustled through the sails.
A rough laugh broke her song's spell, followed by grumbled curses. She hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself a smaller target, and clung to the railing, even as their fists fell upon her unprotected back.
That night, as she tried to find a position to sleep in that did not send fire racing across her new bruises, Adria leaned her head against the hull. With her ear pressed against the wood and only her short, pained breaths to count a rhythm, the lap of the water against the ship sounded almost like a song.
And so it went. For the next five days, Holger dragged her up to the bow, and each day she sang with no real hope that Sea-Father heard her. Each day, no wind appeared, and each day, she was beaten for failing to sing it to them. The raiders had long since lost hope that she could actually do as Holger claimed she could, but they seemed to enjoy the break from rowing and the distraction from their hunger, their thirst, their boredom. Each day, there was no hint of where shore might be.
Oh, Father, oh, Father, where have you gone?
They could not row back to Adria's home. They did not have the men to conquer the white-walled town as easily as they had her poor village. Their prowess lay in quick raids on the water, not attacking well-defended fortifications. And they did not have enough drinking water to backtrack. Their navigator, Adria learned, had been lost in the storm that blew them so wildly off course and to the shore of her island home.
Our nets, our nets, long for fish but hold none.
On the sixth day, when the grain ran out, Adria was sure that was the end. It was the end for two of the older women in the hold, who were thrown screaming and wailing over the rail, their cries echoing long after the boat had rowed away from their clutching fingers. Adria had pressed shaking hands over Kara's ears, as if such a simple thing could shield the girl from what was likely to be their shared fate.
But the next day, the men caught a few fish in their nets. They discovered Adria and Kara were both quick hands at gutting and cleaning, so she sang another day, and Kara remained in the hold and not in the sea.
Our sails, our sails, lie dead on their lines.
The real danger was running out of fresh water. Only a couple full barrels remained in the hold, Adria's only company besides the few remaining women. Adria dreamed of cracking the barrels open and dunking her head in, of the cool kiss of rain on her skin. Her lips cracked until she tasted blood every time she spoke, and her voice weakened until it was barely a whisper.
And still they made her sing.
Oh, Father, oh, Father, now is your time.
Two more days passed, and two more women were thrown overboard. There were no more fish. It was much quieter in the hold than when she'd first been forced into it. There was only herself and Kara now. The girl cried every night, and Adria whispered nonsense stories of how the sea-maids would rise from the depths and carry them away to safety.
The sea's lullaby grew louder each night. Sometimes, just before sleep took her, she swore she could make out words, sung in no language she could understand. She dreamed of the sea-maids that Kara loved so dearly, with hair the color of kelp and tails shining with scales, long-lost sisters come to take her away to live in their sandcastles with their hidden treasures.
She dreamed of Grandfather teaching her the festival songs, his deep baritone weaving in and out of her childish soprano, their notes dancing through the small hut. A gift for Sea-Father, he used to call the songs. Even when the wet-lung stole his voice, Grandfather held faith that Sea-Father loved him, his wind-singer child, and heard him. He would brokenly whisper his wishes to Adria so she could throw a stone for him if she found the right one. Sound sleep, easy breathing, calm heart. He never wished to be saved. Sea-Father was not known for his mercy.
The next morning, Holger dragged Adria and Kara up to the deck.
"Take me, take me," Adria begged, clutching Kara's small hands tightly in hers. "She's worth more!"
The one-eyed man smiled at her with cracked, bloody lips. "We took a vote, y'see. The men would rather have a go at you than her, if we don't find land tomorrow."
Adria had long ago stopped hoping for a chance to grab a knife and at least take her blood due from one or two of the raiders. She was too weak to wield a blade, and she was almost positive the men had broken a few of her fingers in one of the beatings. Most of her right hand was swollen purple and throbbed with each heartbeat. But still, when Holger yanked Kara from her grip, Adria threw herself at him, shrieking and raking her nails down his face and neck in the hopes that he'd be distracted enough to let Kara go.
"Damn it, someone grab her!" he said as Kara screamed and fought against his hold. The girl was too weak to break free on her own.
Wiry arms snatched Adria back just as her fingers brushed Kara's grimy blouse. She howled and tore at the man's hold, helpless as Holger lifted Kara as easily as he would a fish. Adria caught the girl's frightened gaze one last time.
"Please, Sea-Father, save her!" she cried out.
But Sea-Father was not known for his mercy, and the girl disappeared over the railing. There was one lonely splash, a watery scream, and then silence.
Sagging in the man's hold, Adria screamed until her voice gave out, until there was nothing left for any stupid song that day. When she refused to even try to sing, they beat her until she lay curled in a ball on the deck.
The slow, plodding tread of the captain drawing near forced her eyes open. He pressed a dagger to her cheek, right over her family sign. Adria welcomed the stinging-sharp pain. It distracted her from how thirsty she was and the new grief in her already-heavy heart.
"Tomorrow, it's you," the captain said, his voice as cracked and broken as hers was.
That night, she dreamed she stood on the wish shore, alone. A man wrapped his arms around her from behind, and she leaned into his strong embrace, grateful for the support for her weary bones. She hurt even in her dream, but in his arms, she knew she was safe at last.
"You didn't come when I called," she said accusingly, even as she cuddled closer to his solid body.
"You must wish the right way," he said, his voice a rumble in his chest like thunder. "Even for you, daughter, I can only reach so far."
"I have no wishes left," she whispered, wrapping her hands around his strong forearms, corded with the muscles of a fisherman. "There is no one left to save. There is no one left to help. My family . . . Kara . . . they're all gone."
"Do you truly have nothing else to ask of me?" His voice took on an edge, like the razor-sharp coral her brothers always warned her about. A wave crashed against the shore, rushing up to their feet with long, foamy fingers. She shivered in the chill of it.
She thought of the knife, of Kara's last scream, of the flames eating her father's boat.
"No," she said slowly. "I do have a wish."
"If you but reach your hand to me, I can grant it." His voice turned soft, like the susurrus of the tide kissing the shore, a sound she'd never missed until she heard it no longer. "But I cannot touch a heart that is closed, not even one of my own blood."
Adria accepted this with the easy logic of dreams. But still, she had no answer. "How do I wish the right way?"
"My stubborn daughter." He chuckled and kissed the top of her head. "You know the way. Listen to your sisters."
Adria woke with a small gasp in the empty hull, the movement jarring her injured hand so much that tears sprang up in her eyes. She wept, longing to feel those strong arms wrapped around her again. The sea sang her back to sleep in a chorus of female voices, a liquid lullaby that surely came from a place beyond waking.
As Holger pushed her up the ladder, Adria's heart rattled in her chest like a bird in a cage. She thought of Kara, of the girl's thin fingers disappearing over the rail. She did not want to die alone in the open sea, with no one to sing her soul home. But then she thought of her dream, and of the sea's lullaby, and held on to one last hope.
The captain arched a weary eyebrow at her as she stopped before her usual spot on the bow.
"I'd like a stone," she said, forcing the words through her cracked lips. Her throat was raw from yesterday's screaming, but the fire in her heart drowned out all the pain.
Coarse laughter rang out across the deck, harsh as a seabird's caw. The captain merely sighed. He rubbed his crooked nose.
"Are you trying to delay, girl? It'll serve you no good. There are no stones at sea."
She lifted her chin, meeting his cold, gray eyes with hers. "I need a stone. That's why it hasn't worked before. It's the only way."
The captain scowled, his hand going for the hilt of his knife, when a thin voice piped up from the back of the crowd.
"Cap, I have a stone."
Adria looked up as a young man, no older than she was, pushed forward through the ragged bunch. He fumbled at a leather cord tied around his neck. His fingers shook, though, and he couldn't get the knot free.
The captain rolled his eyes, then yanked the leather tie so hard the boy let out a strangled yelp as it snapped from his neck. The captain tossed the tie and its small burden to her, and Adria caught it with ease.
"I found it in my boot after the raid," the boy explained. "It looked pretty, so I kept it. For luck."
The other raiders laughed at his foolishness, but their rude jibes seemed to come from fathoms away as Adria stared at the stone. Her legs gave out beneath her, and she crumpled to the deck, cradling the stone in her broken hands. It was pale white, uniformly smooth, warm from resting against the boy's chest, and had a black, jagged crack running through it. She rubbed her thumb along the black line, a sob escaping her lips.
Too distracted by the lost stone returned to her, she didn't see the boot coming toward her face until it was too late. The blow snapped her head back, bright white chasing away the deck, the raiders, the sky. The rock grew hot in her hand, and as she squeezed it tighter, the pain faded just a little. Just enough to finish her task. She blinked—once, twice—until the captain's scowling face came back into view.
"You've got your rock. Now, sing."
Gasping with each movement, Adria pushed herself to her knees, then used the rails to lever her battered body up the rest of the way. She sagged against the thin wooden poles to catch her breath before turning to face the sea. Did it gleam a little brighter? Did the ripples move a little faster? Or was her head too damaged from the kick?
She ran her tongue across her lips, wincing, then took a breath. The song that spilled out of her was not the festival song she had sung each day, nor was it any of the other songs Grandfather had taught her. Instead, she sang the song of the sea, once heard muffled through the hull each night but lately crystal clear as the notes bled into her dreams.
The meaning was lost to her, the syllables liquid and tumbling like the tide over the wish shore, but she sung with all her heart. She strained her broken voice to hit the ever-climbing notes, embarrassed as it cracked and squeaked, falling well short of the beautiful tune that lulled her to sleep. She wasn't sure she could sing this song flawlessly even at her best. It was not a song made for human throats. But she tried, singing until she had no breath left, until blood ran down her chin from her lips and the image of the sea blurred in her eyes.
She sang and thought of her father and brothers, smiling and sunbaked after a long day, of Grandfather picking out just the right stone for her to wish on, of strong arms holding her safe on a familiar shore.
For once, no chuckles or sly comments rang out from behind her.
Finally, just as she thought she could sing no more, the song was done. She swayed on her feet, hunching over the stone, warm in her hands, close to her heart. Then she brought it to her lips and spoke the wish of her soul, so softly that none could hear. When she was done, she kissed the rock and threw it into the sea.
Adria didn't turn around, not even when one of the raiders broke the eerie silence with a shout, followed by a louder chorus. She clung to the rail, ignoring the pain in her fingers, in her head, and struggled to stay upright. As she watched the scintillating surface of the sea, she heard the familiar sound of a sail snapping taut. Finally, she looked over her shoulder, taking in the sight with a mixed heart of satisfaction and resignation.
The sails were full with the same wind that whipped her hair against her face and plastered her skirt against her legs. She looked to the captain, who'd stayed close to her while the others had run off to their tasks and celebration.
Holding up a hand to guard his face from his own wind-tousled hair, he stared at the sails, then back at her. His mouth hung open, and he looked at her as if she had crawled up from the sea itself.
"I'd like to go back to the hold now," she said.
At first, the raiders rejoiced in their newfound speed, boasting about what they would do as soon as they reached shore. Perhaps they'd keep their wind-singer to speed them on to fortune and fame. What patrol boat could possibly outrun a ship powered by a true wind-singer, after all? The deck rang with dreams of fat merchant ships and gold so heavy they couldn't bring it all back with them, and for the first time since the storm, the raiders cheered at their salvation.
That night, though, the wind the raiders had first celebrated grew wild and sped their ship through waters dark and choppy. No matter what action they took, they could not turn the ship from its course. Ropes tore from their hands, the sails strained and ripped, brutal waves slapped against the deck, taking a few of the raiders with them, and still the ship sailed on. The wind was so fierce that it stung the raiders' eyes into blindness, and they stumbled around in the dark, unaware of the coastline rapidly approaching.
Adria saw none of this, huddled against the hull of the ship, safe in the hold. When the ship's rocking intensified and the shouts above melded into a raucous song of their own, she knew the first half of her wish had come true. And when the impact of the deadly, craggy rock that the raiders could neither see nor steer away from shook the boat to its very bones, she smiled.
Sea-Father was not known for his mercy.
As water gushed in from the hole the rock had created in the hull, Adria sang. A song of welcome and a song of family filled the hull with that strange liquid language as seawater soaked her skirts, then her bodice, then finally closed over her head. It spilled into her open mouth, and her sodden clothes dragged her toward the jagged hole.
In the darkness of the water, she spread her arms out, welcoming her Father's all-encompassing embrace. Just as her eyes closed for the last time, she imagined she felt a small, pale hand, with curiously webbed fingers, grab her ankle and pull. She closed her eyes and let the water have her.
The next day, a boat ventured out from the port city guarded by the cruel rocks, to hunt for any salvage in the wreckage. The sailors found the raiders' bodies, floating in their soaked black tatters, but little else to take home for spoils. And of a dark-haired girl with a blue tattoo on her cheek, there was no sign.