A/N: Oh hi there. Some people might remember this story from when I first started publishing it here, first as 'Aeri' and later as 'Shadow Affinity.' There were a few who were pretty devoted to and those are probably the only people who will care about this note if they find me again. The short version is that there are no more problems with my posting this here and should not be any cropping up. I also intend to finish this. So as to not make anyone who had followed this story wait, I am going to post the original 19 chapters I had up without spending really ANY time looking at them to make sure they're right. If anyone catches anything really odd, please comment or PM me and let me know and I'll try to fix it.
I also have a quick chapter 20 as new content for those who did follow this before. It's short, but it's new. And I wanted everyone to know that I will be finishing. There will be a more detailed note about the long delay, etc. there, at the end of chapter 20. See you there!
There has never been a time that I can remember in which I did not have the powers of pain and life in my hands. The pain came first, my mother said, nearly as soon as I was born. Family legend has it that I, discomfited and hungry following my birth, screamed my irrational rage at the midwife who caught me, causing her to immediately pale and nearly drop me, overcome with the force of a headache that lasted several days.
This, of course, was only an exaggeration, passed down from the tales my older brothers took pleasure in mocking me with. But it has always been true that I am more inclined to bring pain than to bring healing.
I was born on a farm – an inauspicious beginning to be sure – the youngest of eight children and the only girl. With seven older brothers, burly lumps of muscle to a man, and no real talent for farming myself, I was something of an outcast in my family.
From time to time, I wondered whether my mother had played my father false in order to get me. There had never been any hint of magic in our family before I came along. Likewise, both my parents were of a stocky build, made for toiling over the land and coaxing it to provide sustenance. Where my black hair and silver eyes came from was just as much a mystery as the magic in my veins. Yes, with my slight frame and my unusual gifts, I was very much an outsider.
Still, I was made use of often enough to be valuable to my family. Though I might struggle with lifting hay bales or weigh too little to be of much assistance in pulling the frames of a new barn upright, I could still work around the house like a common servant and bring healing to those who injured themselves in the 'real work' that was the livelihood of our family.
When I was set to work out of doors, I usually found myself hoeing line after line of crops, identifying and pulling weeds or simply turning up the rich soil of our farm.
It wasn't until early in my fourteenth harvest that I became aware of a growing sense of power within me. Even then, realization came slowly to all of us. Many miles as were from the nearest town or neighbor, our isolation and the lack of practical understanding of the magic that flowed within me contrived together to make nearly the whole of that year one of mysterious illnesses and unfathomable hurts.
Although my whole life was one of outward submission and docility, I had always seethed inwardly, well beneath the placid arrangement of my face. This hitherto fruitless anger had never amounted to anything until that fourteenth harvest. Then, when my brothers would take their turns at chivvying and hounding me from dawn until dusk, I could do nothing but silently fume. Now, however, when my anger was brought to bear in my mind against any one of the louts, he would mysteriously fall ill within the next hour or day.
I was not suspected to be the culprit in these affairs; not even by myself. We were all so well accustomed to thinking of me as being weak or impotent that even though a pattern began to emerge within a few weeks, no one could see it. Though my mother did suspect everything from tainted water to foul night airs to rotted foods, no fingers were ever pointed in my direction.
Perhaps it might have come clear sooner if I were more demonstrative or allowed my feelings to show on my face. But I, feeling keenly that to show my thoughts would be the ultimate show of weakness, never gave even a hint that behind my unsmiling visage lay a roiling torrent of suppressed rage.
Things might have come clearer sooner had any of us understood that the reason I could not cure any of these mysterious ailments was because I had inflicted them.
It wasn't until the tinker, Old Ensiro, came to our farm just before the planting that we had any idea of what might be happening. I had always been glad to see the wizened old man before since he came not only with fresh goods that were often needful – especially in the kitchens – but also arrived with a fresh supply of news of the outside world.
"They do say an' how this war should be over soon," Ensiro confided on this occasion, still stretching out the cramps in his back and legs.
"War?" echoed Mother, her voice high with surprise. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Ah, so you hadn't heard of it," the tinker replied blandly, the twinkle in his eyes belying the innocent tone in which he made his observations. "I thought surely you would have done with something as disruptive as a war."
He winked at me, having caught my unguarded smirk of approval at his sly tactics. Though he would parcel out his news in precisely this same fashion every year, no one in my family ever seemed to catch on that it was one of his many ways of ensuring himself a generous welcome.
"Now then, Aeri," he said to me, "perhaps you would care to give an old man a bit o' relief from those magic fingers of yours? I could just do with a gentle touch."
Keeping my face carefully impassive, I merely stretched out an arm towards him, holding my palm facing outward. With a burst of inner concentration I sent a wave of healing in his direction, tempering it with a soothing burst of warmth that would help to keep his muscles relaxed.
The look on his face was worth having restrained my grin at being able to perform. Last year when he had asked me for the same favor I had been obliged to actually lay my hands on him.
"Your magic improves," the tinker observed, bowing very slightly. "Will you have had a teacher then?"
"No," my mother answered for me. "She hasn't. Her gifts are well enough without spending the precious time or money that is needful for further training."
He cocked an eyebrow in response but said nothing more about it, instead turning to the task of getting his shaggy horses unhitched from the covered wagon they pulled.
Mother shot me a look before moving to help him. Don't get any ideas, her face warned. Anger licked through me immediately. It was one thing to know that my gifts were all but scorned in the life we led, it was another thing altogether to hear them publicly denounced as not being worth even a bit of time or training to hone and perfect them.
None of these thoughts showed on my face, of course. But they broiled below the surface as I went about my afternoon chores of helping with the planning and preparation of dinner.
The very next day, my mother could not rise from her bed, saying her entire body ached with a furious and blinding pain. I was called up to try to assist her but was unable to make a difference.
"Have you done everything you can to help me?" Mother snapped when my efforts proved futile. "Or are you just pretending to be useless in order to try to force your father and me into wasting perfectly good money on you and your gifts?"
"I've done all I can," I answered, my voice cold with suppressed fury. "I am sorry it is not enough to help you." Then, inwardly cursing her, I left the room with as undisturbed an expression on my face as I could manage.
My anger had its usual effect of driving me into my work for the day with a vengeance. After seeing that the kitchen was in pristine shape, I moved out to the barn where even I was considered strong enough to be helpful with mucking out the few stalls and throwing down clean hay from the loft.
On my way there, I happened across Old Ensiro, who was apparently just coming from checking on his own animals. Tired and worn as they usually looked, he really did take excellent care of them and preferred to do so by himself.
He furrowed his brow when he saw me and halted me mid-step with a question.
"Do ya mean to kill her then, Aeri?"
I instantly opened my mouth to say no but then realized that I hadn't the faintest idea of who he might be talking about. "Kill who?" I asked instead.
"Your mother," the tinker responded bluntly. "She can't even rise from her bed right now, or so your father tells me, and still you curse her with pain. Why?"
My mouth opened in surprise but I could think of nothing to say in response to this unexpected accusation.
Seeing the confusion in my eyes, Ensiro relented slightly and explained. "Your anger with your mother is what has caused her to fall ill in the first place. Didn't you try to heal her and find that you couldn't?"
"Yes," I replied through suddenly dry lips. "How did you know I was angry with her?"
"At her," the tinker corrected, absently adding, "And I am able to sense things from time to time. It's my own gift." He frowned slightly. "Do you not know anything about the power you have, child?"
I felt my eyes go wide at the question. "How could I?" I asked bitterly. "I have had no one to teach me anything about it."
He sighed heavily. "I see. Well, come along with me and I will tell you what I know. If nothing else, I see I must keep your mind off of your mother or you likely will kill her."
On that note, he turned and began walking away from the house and the barn, towards the small stream that ran nearby. Curious, I fell into step beside him, glancing at him occasionally but not daring to ask any questions while he ordered his thoughts.
"Your ability to bring healing has grown in the last year," he observed, keeping his head bent and his eyes thoughtfully on the ground. "Along with that increase in power there has also been growth in your ability to mete out pain. My guess is that although you do not realize it, when you are angry at someone," he stressed the word again, "you are cursing them with pain."
He stopped walking abruptly and snapped his head up to look me in the eye. "The power will continue to grow within you over the next several years so that people will soon be struck down with pain when you curse them.
"That is why you need to learn now to control your emotions, Aeri. The damage you could cause without even thinking about it is very great indeed."
I felt as though every emotion I had ever possessed was drained out of me at those words, replaced only with a hollow somber feeling. "What can I do," I asked in a small voice, "to change?"
"You will need to learn to control your emotions," Ensiro repeated. "And along with that, you will need to master your thoughts as well. You must pay very close attention to what it is you wish on people when they make you angry."
"So, I am not allowed to be angry any more?" I asked, feeling despair. It seemed impossible to cut off the automatic response.
"You're allowed to be angry," Ensiro assured me. "You must just learn to be angry without directing it at anyone." He sighed heavily and then reached out a gnarled hand to grasp my arm gently. "It would be best if your parents could see fit to get you some training. I know too little to instruct you myself, but I know there are those out there who could teach you to redirect your anger when it is needful."
I thought back to what my mother had said the day before and only an hour ago in her bedchamber and shook my head. "I do not think they will see the need for a teacher. They will only tell me that I must control myself and that –"
I broke off, confused.
"You are already allowing your bitterness to direct itself at your parents," the tinker explained, his voice gentle again. "If what you say is true, my dear girl, you and your family will undoubtedly be in for many rough years."
I didn't say anything in response to that because I knew then that there was nothing more to say. I would simply have to leave at the earliest opportunity and there was no use in pointing that out. Not when Ensiro would try to dissuade me and my parents would command me to stay.
Retreating behind my familiar mask of placidity, I began furiously to think of a plan.
That had all taken place nearly four years ago. I couldn't help but think of it as the harvest season came and went, smiling somewhat sadly as I recollected my escape from the farm life to which I had been born.
Although he hadn't known it, Old Ensiro had carried me away with him and all his trade items when he had left. By the time he did discover it, we had already traveled too far for him to be able to reasonably take me back and I did what I could to persuade him that my life would be better spent apart from my family.
Still, he worried after my welfare and insisted that I must stay with him until he was able to find a safe haven for me. With no better plan in mind, I readily assented to this arrangement and did what I could to earn my keep on the road by preparing meals, cleaning up after them and sending periodic bursts of healing towards him and his animals.
It was also during this time that I began to train myself to the small extent that I could. Ensiro assured me that with the amount of physical space I had put between myself and my family I would not be able to hurt any of them by directing my anger at them. It became something of a game between the old tinker and myself. During the long stretches of silence that fell between us, my thoughts would inevitably turn to those I had left behind. Ensiro, with his gifts, could always sense the fluctuations in my emotions and would keep track of long I would stew over something before I caught myself at it and successfully forced my mind down other avenues.
So deeply ingrained was my habit of silently stewing over perceived injustices that it was several weeks before it took me mere seconds to change my thoughts rather than the minutes it had taken me previously.
Ensiro congratulated me on my progress but simultaneously worried that even ten seconds might someday be too long for me to hold onto my anger.
"Your power will continue to grow for the next several years after all," he told me. "If it grows as much in the next four years as it has done in the last one," he shook his head, dim blue eyes gone unfocused as he envisioned the possibilities, "even five seconds may be enough to bring someone to their knees."
The thought was sobering and I began to consider how I might go about finding someone who would be willing to train me. Having known little other than the isolated routine of farm life, I could not see how it might be possible.
The answer turned out to be Cennerun. Of course, when I first saw him, I thought that all my questions in life had been answered.
It happened on a crisp fall day after nearly a week of heavy downpour. I had been sitting next to Ensiro on the driver's bench at the front of the wagon, enjoying the first good day in what felt like ages. My face was upturned to the sun as I basked in the delights of the brilliant cerulean sky and the vibrant flame-colors of the trees that stood against it. For an instant I thought longingly of the ripe apples that would have been recently harvested back on the farm and licked my lips reflexively as I thought of the cider they would be turned into.
"Blast," Ensiro said beside me, his voice mild as he brought his wagon to a halt.
I looked to see what had caused Ensiro to stop and saw immediately what the problem was. We had come to a river which was obviously running high over its banks as a result of all the recent rain. If there had ever been a bridge spanning it, it was now lost.
Sighing at the situation, the tinker appeared to be thoughtful for several long moments, his lips twitching as he decided on a course of action.
"Well," he said at last, "we can go upstream a ways. The river is wider there and may be shallow enough to ford. Can you swim?" This last was tacked on casually.
"Yes," I replied doubtfully. "But not very well."
He grinned over at me. "I doubt the crossing will be difficult."
With a light slap of the reins and a called command, Ensiro stirred the horses into motion and turned them to the east.
I soon found myself clinging for dear life onto the edge of the bench. Although the land next to the river was relatively clear, it was also infinitely more uneven than even the deeply rutted roads were and despite the slow pace at which we were moving, I was jounced up and down with enough force to make me clack my teeth together more than once.
After nearly a quarter hour of this, we reached the place where the river widened significantly and Ensiro once again pulled the horses to a stop. "Hold these," he commanded gently, giving me the reins.
I took them and watched with a faint sense of unease as the old tinker began to wade slowly into the water. Within the first few steps he was in up to his knees; a foot more and he was wet to mid-thigh. I closed my eyes briefly, imagining the pull of the swift current against his legs, urging him to break lose from land altogether and be born away to a watery demise.
When I opened my eyes again, he was gone. Gasping, I stood upright and looked wildly down the river, expecting to see some flash of limbs as the water carried him off. Before I could process this, Ensiro spoke calmly from somewhere to my left.
"Well, it's a bit faster and deeper than I like, but we should still have no difficulties with it."
I abruptly sat back down as the tinker easily hoisted himself back up into the high seat. "Something wrong?" he asked, catching a glimpse of my face as he took the reins back from my unresisting hands.
"No," I managed. "Not at all."
He mistook my look despite my words. "There's no need to be nervous," he soothed. "We'll get across just fine. And make it to the Jaxon's place well before supper."
Recovered by now from my misplaced fright I smiled over at him. "I'm fine."
I was fine, too, right up until the moment when we hit the mid-point of the river and the wheels of the wagon seemed to slide several inches to the right.
"Blast!" Ensiro said again, with rather more feeling this time.
The horses had felt the shift as well and already disliking the enticing pull of the current against their collective eight legs decided to freeze in place.
Fear spread and curled like a monstrous black weigh in the pit of my belly and I held on all the more tightly to the seat below me.
"You'll need to take the reins," the tinker informed me, trying to pass them over to me. When I made no move to take them, mesmerized as I was by the sight of all that water rushing swiftly by on all sides, he gently pried my left hand free of the board.
"Aeri, this is no time to panic. You must take the reins so that I can lead the horses across the rest of the way. We are already halfway there, but we won't make it if you don't help me at once."
His words were urgent enough to bring me to my senses, although fear still gripped me. I took the reins with much less confidence than I had on land and tried to concentrate on Ensiro.
With complete calm, the wizened old man jumped down from the wagon, immediately sinking waist deep into the water. He held onto the wagon for support and I darted glances between his progress and the horses, wondering what I would do if they decided to panic before Ensiro could reach them.
He did reach them, though, and took firm hold of their bridles to begin the task of leading them towards shore and safety. I relaxed fractionally when we began to move again and I could feel the wagon realign itself behind the strain of the horseflesh.
It wasn't until I relaxed that I realized I had spasms of pain radiating up both arms from the center of my hands. I looked and realized that I had a death grip on the brown leather reins, intense enough to make my muscles ache with the strain.
For just a moment I consciously worked at relaxing every muscle from rigid fingertip to taut shoulder and then sent a small burst of healing coursing through my veins.
Looking up again to see our progress, I was delighted to find that we were now three quarters of the way across the river and the water was no longer so deep where Ensiro stood.
As it turned out, I had looked up just in time to see everything go horrifically awry.