Part One: Summer Skins
Chapter One: Blessed By Summer’s Kiss
Since she was a child, Velrayne had always been uncontrollable. She never stopped moving, and was madly in love with the world around her. She was wild throughout her youth; she never tied back her long, dark hair, and instead let it whip about her face like smoke. Her skin was bronzed from summer suns she’d never once stayed inside for and layers of dirt she was loathe to scrub away, the stubborn child she was.
At seven years old, Velrayne had two older brothers and one small sister. Twelve year old Atistre was extremely affectionate towards his sister, always happy to play with her when she demanded his company. Ten year old Rheian, however, wanted nothing to do with the child except to torment her. Rheian was not a cruel boy, but teasing his sister and pulling her hair were games to him; to chase Velrayne and be chased by her knight, brave Sir Brother Atistre. When Rheian gave into it, he could be quite fond of Velrayne, and the three of them would be a force to be reckoned with. Little Aridia, only three years old, was often excluded, as Velrayne and Rheian considered her too small and fragile to play with them.
Velrayne’s family was one of magic, old blood from when dragons blessed humans with gifts of control over the elements. But blood thinned and weakened as magic folk married into powerless families, and pure sorcerers were rare. Velrayne’s parents, Karymna and Ardane, were both of magic blood, but had mixed ancestry. Rheian had very little power, able to do simple parlor tricks, but nothing more. He cared little for them, though, as his blood boiled with desire to create with his own hands, and never coveted the abilities of his siblings. Atistre was skilled at manipulating flora and fauna and was an excellent healer, but contained neither the capability nor the want for any destructive magics.
Velrayne, on the other hand, excelled at whatever she wished to. Often times, she would be running from Rheian, laughing, with adrenaline surging through her bloodstream, and would suddenly find herself above the ground, her feet carried by wind as she flew. Other times she summoned her powers on purpose, dashing behind a large boulder and waving an arm across her body only to delight in the shimmering of her skin before it disappeared to all eyes but her own. She would stalk her brothers, invisible, before pouncing and letting the spell fall away from her. Rheian delighted in her tricks, making for good sport. Atistre supported Velrayne and was endlessly proud of her, though a nagging feeling in the back of his mind told him a girl as reckless as his sister shouldn’t have that kind of power.
Velrayne pressed her ear to the door, too engrossed in what she was hearing on the other side to remember she wasn’t supposed to be there.
“Karymna, we have four children. Four. Please, remember. I know you see them all.” Her father’s voice.
“Stop it. I know we only have three. My sweet, clever Atistre, talented Velrayne, and their brother, the one who… He’s not like they are. No real magic. My other son, what is his name?” Her mother. Arguing. Again.
“Rheian! Your children are Atistre, Rheian, Velrayne, and Aridia! Aridia!” Velrayne was puzzled. Of course she had three siblings, making their number four in total. At eleven years old, she was the second youngest of her parents’ offspring. Baby Aridia, who wasn’t really a baby anymore, was eight now.
Why does Father keep shouting her name? she wondered. Perhaps her mother had forgotten it. Mother was forgetting things as of late. Aridia had gotten hurt and nearly died when she was little; ever since the accident, her mother hadn’t been quite right. Perhaps she’s worried that Aridia will hurt herself again. She didn’t walk for a very long time last time.
“You’re so cruel. You know I lost my baby. That baby, oh sweet baby. She was special, I know she was. My little girl, she could see things. Brilliant little seer.” She started to cry, and Velrayne heard a thud, which she imagined was her mother falling to the floor. “You! You took her away!” She shrieked, accusing. “Did you sell her? You sold her and her pretty eyes, eyes that saw, saw what we couldn’t, what you never could, because you were only a clever liar,” she accused venomously.
“Kar, please. You’re only upsetting yourself,” he begged. “The children are all in their beds. Come, we’ll go see Aridia, she’s safe, she’s happy, she’s-”
“Gone! A ghost! Dead, my baby, flying, my little ghost is flying, and she can’t move, oh Ardane, she hurts so much,” Karymna wailed, barely intelligible between loud sobs.
Velrayne reached for the doorknob, wanting only to rush in and comfort her mother. She was stopped at the last moment by strong, gentle hands that covered her mouth and pulled her away by the waist. When at last they were far away from her mother’s heartbreaking cries, Velrayne’s attacker made themself known. “You shouldn’t eavesdrop,” Atristre scolded, though his voice was worn and tired, and held no real threat.
Velrayne pouted. “I wanted to know what was happening with Mother. Why is she so sick? When will she get better? I want Mother back, Atistre,” she said somberly.
Atistre’s jaw clenched. “I don’t know. She thinks Aridia’s dead. Convinced she’s not real. Whenever she sees her, she screams and calls her a ghost, here to haunt her. Something happened, when Ari was hurt. Something that hurt something within Mother,” he speculated. “So we must be gentle with her, and protect our sister. Do you understand?”
Velrayne nodded and stared down at her hands. “Ari loves Mother so much,” she murmured sadly. “She doesn’t like being kept away from her all the time. Everyone’s hurting.”
“We’re not hurting as bad as they are. You and me and Rhei, we’re okay. So we must be strongest for those who can’t be for themselves. And you and Rheian especially. You must support one another, and help Father, and care for Aridia, and-”
“You’re leaving us,” Velrayne realized at once, suddenly choked up and unreasonably angry. “You’re telling me to be strong, to be brave, because we won’t have you to fix it when we get it wrong.”
He didn’t deny it. “I’m sixteen, V. I’m a skilled healer, but I need to learn more, how to get better, and I want to help people.”
“I want you to help us!” Velrayne screamed, crying freely. “Mother’s broken and Father doesn’t know what to do with her and I’m frightened and as are Aridia and Rheian and what if we’re all forgotten? Will Father take her away or will he send us far away from her so she isn’t in so much pain? We’re nothing without you, Atistre,” she sobbed, crumpling into a heap on the floor of her brother’s bedroom. Atistre knelt to comfort her, but she pushed him away, her emotions sending a shockwave buffeting into his chest. She heard an ‘oomph’ but moments later his arms were around her again, gathering her into his lap as he rocked her.
“When I’m settled, I’ll send for you. Rheian wants to stay, with Mother and Father and Aridia, in the village. He’s going to apprentice for the smith and learn to live as anyone without magic. If things get any worse, I’ll find a home for Aridia. I’m not going to abandon my family. I’ve made plans. You’ll never be alone, little witch,” he said sweetly, kissing the top of Velrayne’s head and petting her hair while she clung to him like a lifeline.
“Don’t leave me here,” she whimpered. “You love me. Don’t abandon your sister, who loves you, who needs you. You’re my brother and you protect me and I can’t live without you.”
Atistre hushed her. “Nonsense. You’re so brave, Velrayne. I’m so proud of you. You’re smart, and beautiful, and powerful. It’ll only be for a short while, and then we’ll be together again. Just us.”
“Do you promise?”
Velrayne sat up and kissed his cheek before curling up in his arms once more. “Can I sleep in your bed tonight?”
The next morning, Velrayne woke in an empty bed, the space where her brother had slept beside her already cold. She simply huddled under the covers and cried, mourning. It didn’t matter if he sent for her tomorrow, or a hundred years from now, she felt the loss as if he were truly gone from her forever.
As fate would have it, it was only weeks before word came from Atistre. Rheian pulled her aside as she was mending one of her dresses, the sleeve ripped when she’d tripped the day previous. “A letter’s come for you,” he said quickly, his voice hushed. “Mother and Father know nothing of it, and they mustn't. They didn’t know Atistre was leaving, or they would never have let him go. So pack your things and be quick about it. I’m going into town this afternoon and I’ll bring you with me, to help steal you away. He’s a day’s ride from here, and there’s a horse for you waiting to carry you to him. There’s a healer he’s apprenticing under, and his wife is a talented sorceress. She’ll teach you how to use your magic. They’re in a proper town, full of people. You’ll be happy there, sister,” he promised, cupping her cheek with his hand. “And safe. Now go,” he urged, and she nodded, dashing to her room to gather what little she held dear.
When she’d packed her things in a large leather bag, she slung it over her shoulder and across her chest, leaving the bag to lie against her hip. She sought out Rheian then, and found him getting ready to leave. “You’re prepared then?” He asked, to which Velrayne replied with a nod. “Good. We’ll get you food in the village, then send you off. You’ll be safe, I’m sure. My little sister has always been able to hold her own,” he teased lightly. At fourteen he was still a boy, but acted so much like a man that Velrayne could scarcely believe the few short years that had passed since they’d played as children. As they grew older, Rheian had come to love his sisters with a fierce passion. While Atistre comforted and healed them, Rheian was first to fight for them, using fists and steel to protect them. Velrayne was only eleven herself, but more often than not, felt like a woman grown already. It made her sad, to think that perhaps she’d lived her childhood through at so young an age.
“Let’s go. I don’t want Mother or Father catching us and realizing I mean to run away,” she said, fingers toying with the strap of her bag nervously. Rheian nodded and laced up his boots. He led her down the dusty dirt road into the village, and they walked leisurely, as if they weren’t both thrumming with nervous energy. Rheian left her at the stables out behind the blacksmith where he trained under the smith himself, with instructions on how to find Atistre. Velrayne threw her arms around his neck and held on tightly. “I’ll miss you, Rhei,” she whispered.
Rheian’s arms looped around her waist and he hugged her. “And I you. Now fly, little sister, our brother will take good care of you.” Velrayne nodded and mounted her horse, a sweet chestnut mare with a braided brown mane. Rheian gave the beast a light slap, enough to get her to go off at a brisk trot. Velrayne twisted to look at her brother one last time before facing forwards and digging in her heels, the mare taking off at a gallop.
Some hours later, it finally occurred to Velrayne that Rheian would be the one punished for her sudden flight, and she hoped that he could forgive her for the pain he would be dealt in her stead. Putting on a brave face, she resigned to thank him and beg forgiveness when they reunited, their family whole once more.
Velrayne found an inn at which to sleep that first night, and the homely matron had given her a hot meal of beef stew with hearty chunks of potato and vegetables in a thick gravy and half a loaf of bread to sop up the delicious liquid. With her belly warm and the butterflies within still fluttering anxiously, she slept rather easily. She was off the next morning after a sparse breakfast and a kiss to the matron who had taken care to see her fed, Velrayne and her mare were off again.
They arrived at a small town later that day, just as shadows began to grow during daylight’s last hours. She asked where the healer lived, with his sorceress wife, and was given directions to a fair-sized cottage on the outskirts of town. A stable boy with a broad, ugly face asked her incredulously who she was and why she was there. After all of his questions had been answered to his satisfaction, he helped her to dismount and led away her horse, telling her curtly where she could find his master and his master’s wife. She nodded and thanked him, then went inside.
“Velrayne? Oh dear sweet sister, it’s you,” called a cheerful voice from across the room. Her brother came running towards her, pulling her against him and kissing her hair when he got to her. “I’m so glad you made it alright. How was your journey?”
Velrayne beamed and hugged him. “It was fine. I only left yesterday, and I’ve eaten since, though I’m sore from riding. I’m not accustomed to going so far in such a short time,” she admitted sheepishly.
“You can take a hot bath, you’ll feel much better,” he suggested. “And once you do, you’ll meet Camidedrae, and his beautiful wife Amaltheia. They’ve been so good to me, and are excited to become acquainted with you as well.” Atistre grinned at her. Though Velrayne was sad to leave her other siblings, she had always loved Atistre dearest, and he looked happier than he had in so long. For the first time in months, Velrayne felt happiness swell within her, joy rising like a tidal wave. She agreed to his proposal and let him show her to the bathroom.
She drew her own bath and sank into the water, heating it with her thoughts as she submerged herself. She scrubbed away the past day’s worth of sweat and grime from her skin, scouring her pores until her body was pink. She could finally feel at ease. No more arguments between her parents, her mother crying and screaming over her lost, or dead, or non-existent daughter. Just her, her brother, and the two wonderful people who would teach them to master their art.
An hour later, Velrayne was dressed in a clean dress of deep green that brought out the sapphire blues of her eyes, her bushy hair tamed and tied back in a hurried braid. She thought herself presentable and went in search of her brother so he could introduce her to the people who were housing and teaching them. “Atistre?” She called out. Moments later, she heard light footfalls and then her brother appeared before her.
“You’re a vision, little sister. Come, we were just sitting down to sup, join us,” he invited brightly, leading her through the house to the yard behind the cottage. A reasonably sized wooden table sat closest to the house, where people who must have been Camidedrae and Amaltheia sat. The ground was mostly dirt with sparse, thin grass, littered with targets that had taken a fair beating. Beyond the training yard, barren earth turned to lush meadow and finally to a thick grove of trees off in the distance.
“Sweet girl, how lovely you are,” cooed the woman, her voice all honey, and just as warm. She beckoned for Velrayne to sit beside her. Happy to oblige, Velrayne took the place beside the woman, who must’ve been at least fifty, yet still had quick, lively eyes and Velrayne suspected her body and mind were just as sharp. Wrinkled, yet soft hands closed around Velrayne’s own, and light crows feet crinkled around the corners of her eyes as she smiled. “We’ve heard of you endlessly since Atistre arrived. He’s so terribly fond of his little sister.” Velrayne blushed. “Now, my husband is the healer here, and has taken it upon himself to take your handsome older brother under his wing. But I was a fighter, and always shall be. So you and I, we’ll truly have fun. Just us girls.” She had a laugh like melting snow and silver bells, as if she were spring incarnate and had never known a day of sorrow in her life.
Her husband, who had been silent, finally spoke up. “It seems Amaltheia is already quite taken with you,” he noted, amused. “I wish you the best, child. Please, share our food and our home. You’re to be the grandchildren we never had.”
Velrayne accepted graciously and tucked into the meal before her, happy to have a proper family of her own, finally. She elected to ignore Camidedrae’s ever so slightly off-putting remark of having never had grandchildren. It was bound to be a story too somber for what ought be a gleeful joining, so she celebrated and played the part of the dutiful daughter.
That night, she slept fitfully. When hours passed and she had still not been able to stay asleep, she crept into her brother’s room and quietly climbed into his bed. His arm went around her and she pressed her ear to his chest, listening to the beating of his heart and feeling his warmth, the steady rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. All signs of his health, his being alive and with Velrayne, where he belonged. Wherever he was, Velrayne would want nothing more than to be with him. He was her heart, she knew. She had been told the stories of souls like those of hers and her brother’s. They would be tied together forever, far beyond the relationship of siblings, family members, friends. Where she was death, he was life.
But Velrayne never heard the ends of the tales that spoke of such pure love. A bond so profound was not without its consequences. So as Velrayne grew, as did the fire within her, the death and destruction she represented. The end of all things. And though Atistre gave her life, Velrayne’s life would be the death of him.