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Author: Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: DAW Books, 2020
Titan Books, 2020
Series: Elemental Masters: Book 15
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Anna May Jones is the daughter of a coal miner, but a sickly constitution has kept her confined to the house for most of her life. Hoping to improve her daughter's health--and lessen the burden on their family--Anna's mother sends her to live with her Aunt Jinny, a witchy-woman and an Elemental Master, in a holler outside of Ducktown.

As she settles into her new life, Anna learns new skills at Aunt Jinny's side and discovers that she, too, has a gift for Elemental magic that Jinny calls "the Glory". She also receives lessons from a mysterious and bewitching woman named Jolene, who assures her that, with time, Anna could become even more powerful than her aunt.

But with Anna's increasing power comes increasing notice. Billie McDaran, the foreman of the Ducktown mine, begins to take an interest in Anna and her abilities--even though Anna has already fallen in love with a young man with a talent for stonecarving.

If she wants to preserve the life she has come to love, Anna must use her newfound powers to oppose the foreman and protect those around her.



The sun shone thinly through the ever-present smoke and dust above the coal-mining town of Soddy; it should have been warm, but Anna May huddled in Ma's darned and discarded shawl as her hands busily shelled peas. She was almost always cold, except when other people were fanning themselves, opening their collars and complaining about the heat. From where Anna May sat on her Pa's porch, if you raised your eyes above the roofs of the clapboard houses across the dirt street, and squinted just a little, the haze that never left the air of Soddy looked pretty instead of dirty, and the hills and the tops of the trees outside of town were like something in a dream.

She didn't dare daydream, because Ma would be after them peas before too long. She druther look at the trees just past the roofs of town, concentrate on shelling, and try not to listen to Ma and Pa inside, argumentin'.

Ma had set her to shelling the peas she'd picked out of the garden, and told her to go out on the porch to do it. She knew what that meant. It meant Ma was going to have something to say to Pa as soon as he got back from the coal mine, and she didn't want Anna to hear what it was.

That was what she always did whenever she wanted to give Pa a piece of her mind. The two-room house was too small for anyone to keep anything private. The bedroom in the back barely had room enough for Ma and Pa's bed, the washstand, and the clothes chest, and when Anna's narrow trundle under the big iron bedstead was pulled out for sleeping, there was hardly room for a mouse to pass. And the main room was just as cramped, what with the deal table, the three stools, the iron sink, the cupboard for the food, two mismatched chairs at the hearthside, and the cast-iron cookstove. She supposed the cookstove was a blessing, though it took up so much room and needed such careful tending. All the Company-built cabins had cast-iron stoves; people didn't burn wood 'round here, they burned waste coal, and the Company reckoned that what with coal soot building up in the chimbleys faster than wood did, there was a bigger fire risk with an open hearth than with a coal stove. After all, the Company didn't want its investments burning down.

There wasn't much at all pleasing to look at here in Soddy itself. This dirt street they were on was all Company houses, clapboard two-room Company-built cabins all alike, all originally whitewashed, all of them gray and dingy with the soot that came out of the coke ovens. That soot was everywhere, and it was worse in winter, when everyone stoked their little coal fires (in freehold cabins) or coal stoves (in the Company houses) all day long and most of the night. Soot and coal smuts were just a part of life in Soddy. You couldn't never get anything clean, or at least, it didn't stay clean for long, no matter how hard you tried. Wash left hanging out was gray by the time it was dry, even if you bleached it until your hands burned, iffen you could afford the bleach. Even if you could afford to whitewash your house every spring, by early summer it was gray again. Folks coughed and sneezed a lot, but the Company said all that coughing was prosperity.

She tried not to breathe too deeply, because that always set off her coughing bad, but there weren't nothing good here in town to smell anyway. Nobody that had a garden wasted space and compost on flowers. And some people, naming no names, didn't keep their privies as clean as Ma did.

She dreamed most nights of running out of town, down to the Lake, all the way to Soddy Crick, or just out to them trees, where things was green and there must be the wonderful scents of green grass and flowers, and she could walk in the grass or paddle in the Lake's edge. She'd never in her life done that, even though them woods was only a few streets away. When she was little and couldn't help around the house and garden, Ma had tied her to the table to keep her from toddling off or touching the hot stove. Maybe Ma had done that because she'd tried to run off to the woods even back then, when she couldn't get down the porch steps without crawlin' down 'em; she obviously couldn't remember. But as soon as she was old enough to hold a rag, Ma had put her to work, like every other kid in Soddy was, as soon as they was old enough. It was only once there were more kids in your family than there were chores that anyone got to play, and Anna was the only child in her family.

Not that there were store-bought toys to play with, but you could make toys easy enough, like corn dollies and corn horses out of shucks, and if you had a knife you could carve out whistles and all manner of clever things, and if you were careful they could last for months or even a year. And there were games you could play without much but a stick or a piece of rope, or a pocketful of conkers. Boys could always fish, and that wasn't considered playing, that was putting food on the table, even when it was sham-fishing with nothing on the end of your line, not even a hook. As a young'un, she'd often looked up wistfully from scrubbing the porch or weeding the garden to see other kids playing tag or skipping rope, or trudging toward the Lake or the Crick with poles over their shoulders, wishing she could be one of them. Especially if she'd been a boy. If she'd been a boy, there wouldn't be no house-chores to speak of, maybe weeding or hauling waste-coal, whitewashing the fence, but no cleaning and cooking. She'd have been one of them boys with a pole and a pail of worms, off for a day of freedom.

But Anna was the only one in her family to take on chores, and she was proper obedient. She'd always tried to do what she was told. So even as a little bitty mite, she'd done chores from the moment she woke up until after supper, when Ma would teach her letters and numbers until bed. There was a school, but Ma said she couldn't be spared, and nobody in Soddy that mattered cared if someone's Ma and Pa kept them out of school, 'cause so many households needed their kids to work. So even before she'd gotten so puny, she'd never got to run off to the woods and the water like some of the others did whenever they got a spare minute. Because Anna never had no spare minutes, Ma saw to that. Not even on Sunday. Sunday was for Service in the morning, then Sunday school, then Sunday dinner and wash-up, then Bible reading, then Service before supper, then supper, then prayer after supper until bed. Well, for her and Ma. Pa used to vanish after the morning service; now he just went to lay down and Ma couldn't budge him except to eat--unless he felt good enough to go throw a line into Soddy Crick himself. Ma said that was sinful; Pa said that Jesus produced loaves and fishes on a Sunday, so there was no reason why he couldn't produce some fish.

And now, of course, even if she didn't have chores from morning till night, she'd never get as far as the woods, much less the Lake or the Crick, as tuckered out as she got, so quick.

So she just tried to imagine what the woods might be like, and did her best not to think about the fact that she was surrounded by Company houses full of tired, shabby people like her, in this tired old coal town, where the Company owned everything but your soul and every house on every street was the same till you got to the part of town where the few good houses were, for the bosses and suchlike, or the part where the freehold shanties were.

The only difference from house to house was what kind of chair, if any, you had on the front porch, and how many people got crammed into the two rooms. And if you were really pressed for space and could find or buy some boards, you could cram all the kids into a loft you could build across the rafters. Anna knew that compared to most here, their living arrangements were spacious, with her sharing the bedroom only with Ma and Pa. There could be six or eight kids rammed into some of these places, the loft packed edge to edge with corn-shuck mattresses, with a granny or granpappy or two bedding down in the living area thrown in for good measure.

Her hands were busy shucking peas, while she tried to keep her mind on anything other than the urgent voices in the house behind her. Because they were talking about her. She dreaded the times when the talk came down to being about her. Because no matter how it started, it always, always came down to the fact of her poor health, her small size, her weakness, her coughing, and how Something Needed To Be Done.

Ain't my fault I'm sickly. Not like I did this t' m'self.

She actually could remember a time when she'd been healthy, able to take on any chore Ma set her, and always obedient like the Bible said to be. Plain cooking, cleaning, sewing, working in that sad excuse for a garden behind the house where the plants were always covered in soot--though at least the soot kept the bugs off. And the garden did produce enough to make sure that in summer they were never hungry.

It was when she turned womanly that she started sickening. Tired all the time, short of breath, coughing, little appetite and always nauseous. Just this spring, after the potions Aunt Jinny sent stopped doin' much good, Ma insisted she be looked at, and they found the twenty-five cents to take her to the Company doctor. But that didn't help. The Company doctor couldn't find nothing wrong with her, ruling out consumption immediately. Just as well. The likes of them couldn't afford sanitariums in Colorado or hot springs in Arkansas. Ma had thinned up her lips and looked angry as they left the doctor's office; she'd plainly expected more for their two bits, which could have bought a lot of beans. Pa said, "She'll grow out of it," and that was an end to it as far as Pa was concerned.

Except she didn't grow out of it, and that wasn't an end to it. She didn't get much worse, but she didn't get better, neither, and now she was puny and thin, looking closer to twelve than sixteen, and there wasn't much she could do for long without running out of breath, unless it involved sitting. So she could plant and weed but not hoe and water; sew and mend, but not clean or do the laundry. Do things like shucking peas, but not cook, unless it was stirring something while sitting down. All the "easy" chores, things Ma could do in a minute, and even then Anna took so long over them that sometimes Ma chased her off to do something else and finished the job herself.

"... if I'd had my way I'd've sent her to Jinny two years ago. That there doctor's about as much use as a hound-dog that won't hunt. He kills more people than he saves. A pure waste of two bits."

Her throat closed up, and her chest got tight, and her cheeks burned with embarrassment. That was her mother, who'd raised her voice just enough that now Anna could hear her clearly. Ma did that, making it sound like something she'd pressed for was somehow someone else's fault if it didn't go well. So Pa could take it as he'd been the one to urge the doctor, or even that Anna herself had begged for it, and he'd probably misremember it as the second, and she would be the one that wasted a whole two bits.

And the "her" that was to be sent away, of course, was Anna. The "Jinny" was her aunt Jinny, someone Anna had never seen, but who was nevertheless a constant presence in this household. It was Jinny who sent regular basketfuls of "potions" that Ma sold or traded to folks in Soddy and even Daisy, who mostly couldn't afford the Company doctor. It was Jinny who sent other potions that Ma gave to Pa and Anna, and something Ma called her "tea" that she didn't share with anyone, but Anna suspected was a potion too. Jinny lived east, near to Ducktown, all alone, in a cabin that had belonged to her granny. And that was all Anna knew about her. Except that Pa never liked hearing about the woman, though he never complained about the extra pennies the potions brought in.

Pa coughed. She hated that cough. It wasn't like her cough. It sounded like there was something deeply wrong with him--and she knew he didn't seem as strong as he'd been only a couple of years ago. But Ma insisted he'd be all right, they just needed to find the right potion from Jinny...

But so far no potion he'd been made to drink had done him much good for long. And lots of other coal miners in Soddy got that cough too. And they, too, would get weaker and weaker, and then they wouldn't be able to work, and then--well, usually as soon as the weather turned, they'd get the Winter Fever and it would carry them off. She was pretty sure Ma knew that too. And from Ma's tone of voice, Anna reckoned she'd decided she wasn't going to have two people she had to nursemaid on her hands.

And of course, there was another factor in her wanting to send Anna to that particular place. Other folks don't have Aunt Jinny. She knew that was what Ma was thinking. That Jinny would have a better chance at making Anna better if the old lady got her hands directly on Anna. And even if Jinny couldn't make her well, at least Anna would be out of the way and Ma could concentrate on saving Pa from the Miner's Cough. And she knew Ma would fight anything, be it beast, man, or sickness, that got between her and her Lew.

"Girl belongs with her kin," Pa said, after he finished coughing. "Not gallivantin' around the hollers with a wild woman. She kin stay right here."

Copyright © 2020 by Mercedes Lackey


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