Bitterroot: A Short Story
Roark watched as the mountains eclipsed the sun—night descended early here and he welcomed it. Murmuring the incantation over the medallion, he evoked a violet hue which pulled him in the direction of his pursuit—toward the mountains. Not surprising, he thought, and proceeded.
Approaching the river, the tiny town at his back, he inhaled his first unfettered breath. Toes kissing the water’s edge, he whispered to the riverbed, requesting dry passage. A small rumble echoed below as the rocks and silt rose to break the flow. As he crossed, they slid beneath the water, resuming their station on the riverbed.
The medallion led him up a dusty fir-lined lane that saw little traffic and no pedestrians this time of evening. He’d passed two dark houses when it turned deeper into the forest. Under the cover of full dark, Roark ascended a snaking driveway.
A hundred yards ahead of him at end of the drive a small house with a single winking light appeared. The medallion pulled harder. Abandoning the driveway for the forest, Roark circled left to approach from behind.
He summoned his obscuration shield, hiding him from sight, as he nipped silently over the needled ground. Reaching the back of the house tucked against the tree line, he strained his gaze through the large picture window above. The medallion rooted him to the spot.
The three of them huddled around the table, heads pressed together. Gesa, leader of her two young siblings, shared the routes she’d found this afternoon.
Her enthusiastic narrative muffled her instinct, but a small tingle, not more than the whisper of a lover’s kiss, flew over her neck. Rising she said “Wait here.” Then added “Don’t worry, probably just a bear.”
She darted around the corner into the hallway, grabbed the rifle from the highest closet shelf, loaded a round and cocked it.
Silently she eased the back door open and glided outside, still covered in shadow. She didn’t see anything, but, rather, felt it. Animal? she considered. No, this is a person, I can feel their mind.
She registered no movement or shadow, so she closed her eyes, as Pa had taught her, and stretched her senses. There! Her eyes flew open and she caught the slightest ripple of movement at the edge of the forest below.
Aiming the gun she said, “Step into the light.”
Roark froze, certain she couldn’t see him, but confounded that her words punctured him, surely as an arrow finds its mark.
“You’re on private property. I will shoot you if you don’t get your everlovin’ ass into the light.” Her aim didn’t waver; she would shoot, he was certain of it.
Roark dropped his shield and appeared through the trees. His face and hands illuminated, but the rest of him remained hidden by his long leather coat.
“What the hell are you doing sneaking around our house?”
He stared, silent, and stole a look through the window.
“Answer me,” she insisted, shaking the gun a little.
He whipped his eyes to the gun. “I’m looking for someone.”
“In the woods, at night? Looking for someone to hurt, sounds like it.”
“No, no,” he insisted, accurately. “I just need to talk to him.”
The tenor in his voice gave her pause. Without lowering the weapon, she moved into the light and looked deeper. He appeared dangerous, but not malicious—like a wolf who’s recently fed and is disinclined to welcome another meal—and for reasons beyond her knowing, she did not feel afraid.
Lowering the gun, she said, “We’ve got a driveway and a front door. You’re likely to get yourself shot, or worse, creeping around these woods. Who, exactly, are you looking for?”
Roark fumbled for an answer—torn between involving a Normal and expediting his search. Two steps from desperate, he took a chance. “I’m looking for someone important, and I’m certain he’s near. You’d know him as Darron White.”
In a blink she was stretched over the railing staring down on him. Her fingers tightened on the banister and her eyes filled with tears.
“He’s dead,” she whispered.
Roark shook his head and looked at his hand clutching the medallion; violet light pulsed through the spaces between his fingers. Impossible, he thought. “When?”
Bristling, she replied “Why do you want to know? And why are you looking for my father?”
His head snapped up. “What?”
“We should talk inside,” he said. Then he felt it; a wisp of quicksilver pouring down the mountain. “NOW.” Roark jumped ten vertical feet to the balcony and lurched over the railing.
Gesa’s jaw dropped, and she began to protest, but he had them indoors before she’d echoed a sound.
“Who are you?” She put her hands on her hips, fired her eyes and stuck her chin out in a way that tells a man he shall go no further without paying dues.
“I’ll tell you. But let’s get further inside.” He moved toward the lit doorway on the left, and was checked by the steel in her voice. “No.”
With an irritated sigh, he said, “Fine. I’m a Ranger and so was your father,” offering no further explanation. “We need to move away from this door.”
She calculated for a moment, then turned on her heel and led the way to the dining room.
Ilara and Brian remained camped at the table, arguing over which peak they’d climb next when Gesa and Roark walked in. She’d almost forgotten they were awake. “Ilara, Brian, this is…” she trailed off, realizing she didn’t know the stranger’s name and cringed at the fact that she’d just let him inside.
“I’m Roark.” He stuck out a hand to the children and flashed a friendly smile, easing a bit of her apprehension.
“These are my siblings,” she clarified.
They stared at him, mouths agape, and said in unison, “Hi,” before returning their attention to the maps, his outstretched hand a forgotten pleasantry. He grasped his forearms behind his back and waited; a sentinel on duty.
“Hey littles,” Gesa said, “time for bed.” They looked at her with the petitioning eyes of children who know they’re about to miss something. “Go, now,” she said, and with groans and small protest, they dislodged themselves from the table.
Gesa followed them to the hallway, switching on the light. “I trust you to put yourselves to bed tonight, okay?”
She turned around to find Roark fingering the sheaves of paper. Leaning against the doorway, she examined her intruder. He was tall but not large, with smooth olive skin that glowed as though illuminated from within. His dark wavy hair stopped just above his upturned collar, and a renegade piece refused to stay behind his left ear. Tall dark and handsome she’d seen, but he was indescribably more. Gesa felt that she knew him, although she’d never seen him before. Her mind grasped at ethereal memories, but she shook them off and walked into the room.
“What are these?” he asked of the unconventional cartography.
“Maps of the Bitterroot Range,” she replied, dryly.
“They’re unusual.” Meeting her gaze his eyes, bright green then brown, shifted color like a forest as the sun passes behind a cloud, and she felt an electric shock run through her feet and into the floorboards.
Shaking off the paradoxical sensations of immense attraction and voltaic warning, she responded, “Yea well, I like to survey these hills. It’s something Pa and I did. He taught me this system. Said it would help me see mountains as they’re meant to be seen,” she explained, disclosing more than she intended.
“Did he now?” Roark muttered.
In three strides she was at the table, pulling the maps into a neat pile, extracting them from his gaze. “These aren’t important,” she said. Roark raised a dubious eyebrow. “What’s important is why you’re looking for my father.”
He flipped his Ranger coat behind him, raised one deeply worn leather boot over the bench on the long side of the table and straddled it.
Gesa slid an arrowback chair from the opposite side, the red paint worn through to wood at the edges, and sat with arms folded on the table, leaning forward slightly.
Eager, he thought, taking a moment to look at her. Her height couldn’t be hidden, even while seated—her long arms indicating a taller than average woman.
She had the lean, strong physique of a climber. And her face was all angles—not unattractively so, quite the opposite. Just unique and cuspate, like a rock sculpted smooth by water. But her pale complexion, bright with emotion, softened her. He imagined her full lips smiled easily to friends, but to strangers, they remained clamped tight in examination. He found himself wanting to see her smile.
A piece of hair freed itself from her sorrel braid and she broke position, raising her hand to tuck it behind her ear. The motion drew his gaze from her lips to her eyes, flecks of blues and greens with flashes of amber—like galaxies had been born in them.
“Most unusual,” he mumbled.
A pine bough thudded against the side of the house, and Roark’s senses flushed in anticipation.
“They’re just trees,” she said, noticing his tension.
“There is no such thing as just trees,” he retorted. Then, with great hesitation and little choice, he began his tale. “As I said before, I’m a Ranger. We’re an order that protects ancient knowledge.”
“What kind of knowledge?” she asked.
Roark inhaled deeply and continued. “Tomes that have the power to harness the elements. Placed in the wrong hands, they would be disastrous.” Gesa narrowed her eyes and nodded for him to go on.
“Each Ranger has an affinity for an element. They’re assigned to the mountain range their element protects. I have earth, and your father had both earth and fire.” He stared silently at Gesa, hoping that would be a sufficient explanation.
“You’re saying my father was one of you? An elemental wizard with a knack for protection?” she asked.
Breathing a bit of relief that she hadn’t attempted to forcibly remove him, he said, “We’re not wizards. Rangers are protectors, yes, and we have preternatural influence over an element—rarely more than two—which makes us powerful, but not omnipotent.”
Gesa fell quiet for a full minute, the ticking of a clock and the brush of pine needles against glass the only sounds. Then, without warning, she let out a barking laugh, and covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry,” she giggled, “but you expect me to believe that?”
Roark’s face hardened. Obstinate girl. He could take the boy and be done with it, but he felt compelled to her, and he didn’t know enough yet to make a decision.
Exhaling, he pulled out the lit medallion, placed it in the center of the table and tapped his pointer finger on the rune covered coin. Recognition flashed across her face. “This medallion is a tracking device, forged with the blood of the bearer and the ore of the mountain which he protects.”
The laughter in her eyes vanished. “Where did you get this?” she asked. “He never took it off until…” Angry now, she splayed her palms on the table and rose, “You stole it!”
Unflustered at her outbreak, Roark explained the way he would to a child. “No, this is its twin. We always forge two, so that the ranger can either be found under duress or respond to a summons. Your father has been particularly difficult to summon or find these past years.”
Gesa narrowed her eyes. “Don’t move.” She erupted from the table and ran to her room. Fumbling in her nightstand, her fingers found the chain. She withdrew the medallion and gasped—it pulsed a pale violet, just as the one on the table had.
Her eyes palpebrated for a moment before she folded her long fingers around her father’s necklace. Lurching down the hallway, she paused to check on Ilara and Brian—at ten and eight they still shared a room. She cracked open the rough-sawn oak door to reveal the shallow breathing of small lungs, signaling that sleep had indeed stolen the day.
Closing the door on silent hinges, she returned to the dining room. Roark sat immobile as a boulder. She paused to wonder at this stranger whose claims threatened to falsify her father’s legacy. Instinct acknowledged he spoke the truth, but her mind beat furiously against the prospect of it.
She walked over the threshold, opening her hand to show her father’s necklace, when the medallions flashed an incandescent white.
The brilliance and heat startled Gesa. She laid her father’s medallion next to the other, and they both dimmed to a thin glow. She lowered herself on the chair, unable to tear her eyes away from the pair of lucent discs.
Roark’s gaze flicked from the medallions to Gesa. There was no protocol for this situation. A rogue Ranger with the skills to hide and a medallion that survived his demise—they had no history of that, no account of it ever having happened. But he’d seen the boy, so perhaps all was not wasted.
Returning his attention to the table, Roark watched Gesa as she worked something through her mind. Her eyes shifted colors, mirroring her emotions. Roark marveld at the kaleidoscopic display until her eyes settled to an aquamarine hue.
“What conclusion have you come to?” he asked, startling her from her rumination. She pursed her lips to a thin line, and took a breath before nailing her gaze to his.
“Your story has holes,” she said, a hint of triumph in her voice. Roark envied her tenacity towards hope, and looked about the room. The cabin was warm, both in temperature and feeling. Darron was everywhere; in the wide planked fir floors, the table that had seen the sharp edge of his planer, and the wall of pictures behind Gesa telling a story of a man who loved his children more than he loved his brethren. The realization tightened around Roark’s solar plexus, and the unexpected loss swam over him.
“What holes?” he asked in an exacerbated tone.
Gesa launched into her argument. “Well, you say you’ve been looking for my father for what, fifteen years? But all this time you’ve had this tracking thing, and you haven’t used it? And if Pa didn’t want to be found, why didn’t he take it off? And why does it all of a sudden work now?”
“It doesn’t make sense,” she finished, crossing her arms and reclining into the chair, victorious.
Roark smirked and Gesa’s confidence fissured. “First, the medallion is impossible to remove. Only death can release it, and even then, no Ranger has ever allowed his medallion to remain in the world he’s departed.”
“Second, we have been looking for him, but your father had an unprecedented ability for cloaking. It’s what made him such a talented Ranger. Even with the medallion, he’s been impossible to find.”
“Lastly, two weeks ago his medallion illuminated. We assumed it was him signaling us. Now I know it was you.”
Gesa slumped in the chair, her eyes a torrent of color. “I didn’t do anything,” she whispered. But, tears converged and fat drops began to fall.
“Did he ask you to destroy it?” Roark asked, his heart tightening in response to her pain.
She nodded. “I couldn’t, it was all I had left of him.” Silent sobs wracked her slender frame and her defiance disintegrated.
“I’m truly sorry for your loss. Darron was a great man,” he said. Tucking away his wayward emotions, he stood. “I must signal Upland; they’ll want to examine your brother immediately.”
Confused, she asked, “Brian? Why?”
“Yes. It’s customary that the eldest boy of each Ranger is given for training,” Roark said, with a logical coldness that made Gesa shudder.
Gesa flew to her feet, knocking her chair three feet backwards where it tipped against the wall. “You will not take my brother.” Her eyes flashed like a fire opal and Roark took an involuntary step back—something he hadn’t done in over a decade.
“Listen, children of Darron’s line will have the gift. And it always begins with the first-born son, not before. I cannot allow an untrained Ranger to remain so; they’re too vulnerable.”
Gesa raised herself to her full height and with utter certainty said, “NO.” A flash of power pulsed within her and stole his breath. In a moment it was gone.
He considered her. Impossible, he thought. But this entire mission had been impossible, so, against all logic, he asked, “May I take your hand?”
“Take my hand? What? No, why?” She recoiled, clutching her elbows, arms tucked tight in protection of her body.
“I need to see something.”
Reluctantly, she nodded and extended her arm. Roark circled the large farm table, took her left hand with his right and flipped it over, palm up.
Placing his first and second finger of his left hand on the blue veins of her wrist, he nearly flew backward with the surge of power. Earth, definitely, fire, and something else too, he thought. Why didn’t I see it? But, before he could question further, he glimpsed it—a thin edge, red and sparking. He’d recognize Darron’s shield anywhere; the last vestige of a man gone. It’d be a shame to dismantle it. Then, with the deepest earth energy he could muster, he began to pull the fire aegis apart.
Upon finishing, he stepped back and ran his hands through his sweat dampened hair. Gesa stood, exposed and glowing. The light of power pulsed within her, clear and strong—the strongest he’d ever seen in an untrained Ranger.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he whispered, and withdrew his medallion to signal home.