Authors: Karen Mahoney
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Paranormal, #Fantasy, #Kidnapping, #Magic, #urban fantasy, #Action & Adventure, #Family & Relationships, #Social Issues, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Love & Romance, #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family, #Interpersonal Relations, #Orphans, #teen, #Young Adult, #Orphans & Foster Homes, #Law & Crime, #teen fiction, #teenager, #Drama, #Alchemists, #Relationships, #angst
The Iron Witch
© 2011 by Karen Mahoney.
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First e-book edition © 2011
E-book ISBN: 9780738729886
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vial © 2010 iStockphoto.com/Dmitriy Aseev
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To Mum, for always believing in me no matter what;
I love you very much.
And to Veej, for pushing me to live my dreams
(for everyone!); “thank you” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Donna Underwood’s Journal:
My father died saving my life when I was seven years old.
I wish I found it easier to remember him outside of my dreams—where of course he is tall and handsome, and over and over again saves me from the Wood Monster.
In my nightmares, I’m always running through twisted woodland. The trees bend close together and whisper beneath the moonlight as I stumble between them, trying desperately to keep my footing. Behind me I can hear quicksilver footsteps and a cacophony of cackling and screeching. I enter a small clearing with the yammering sound of my pursuers still ringing in my ears.
The ashen stump of a tree trunk stands in the center, a fairy-tale woodcutter’s axe stuck into the top of it at an angle. I’m breathing hard, my chest burns, and the fear is like a frozen claw gripping me so tight it hurts. My child’s hands reach for the scarred axe handle, even as I know I won’t be able to pull it free.
I never can.
I’m surrounded by a weird choir of voices, inhumanly singing my downfall, though I can’t see anything outside the clearing but trees and darkness. There are other sounds, too: strange clicks and scrapings that hurt my ears and set my teeth on edge.
And that’s when my father appears, right there beside me. This part is always so clear that I can’t help wondering if this is how it really happened. Dad reaches for the axe and easily yanks it out of the stump, sparing me a glance. I see the flash of familiar determination in his eyes. Maybe we will get out of here after all. Maybe it will be okay.
“Get behind me, Donna.”
I do what he tells me, and as I cower behind my father’s broad back I begin to pray.
But when the screeching hoard breaks into the clearing, two of them riding on the back of the Wood Monster, I stop praying and begin to scream.
It all started with the party.
That’s what Donna Underwood would tell herself in the days that followed. If only she hadn’t let Nav talk her into going with him, then maybe everything would be different. Maybe things wouldn’t have gotten quite so bad.
But Donna was a total pushover when it came to her best friend, Navin Sharma. All he had to do was gaze mournfully at her with those big brown eyes and she’d gladly follow him into Hell. Or in this case, into a strange house filled with a bunch of kids who thought she was the world’s biggest freak.
Which was pretty much the same thing.
It was hardly her idea of a fun way to spend Saturday night in Ironbridge, especially not when most of this crowd was still attending the high school she’d been kicked out of last year. But Navin was determined to attend the “hottest party” this side of Thanksgiving, and he had been equally determined that she should go with him. This would be more than just a regular gathering, he’d assured her gleefully; it was a major event organized by some guy who’d graduated from Ironbridge High and already dropped out of college. His parents were disgustingly loaded—and on vacation—and the party had been talked about for weeks. Apparently,
would be there.
Which was exactly what she was afraid of.
Once inside, Donna grabbed the first opportunity to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. She found a dark corner of the living room and leaned awkwardly against the wall, fiddling with her silver scarf, retying it for what felt like the hundredth time. With her embroidered blue jeans, black and silver T-shirt, and long, black velvet gloves, she looked a lot more sparkly than she felt. It didn’t help that she’d already begun the day unsettled and jittery, woken by the familiar weight of cold dread. The dreams always left her that way.
Earlier that evening, she and Navin had jumped off the bus at Central Station and set off in the direction of the Grayson townhouse. As the city closed in around them, all energy and iron, Donna had felt the thrum of power beneath her feet. Her adrenaline spiked, and the accompanying rush of blood left her light-headed. Her iron-laced hands and arms throbbed in unison to the beat of the city’s heart. And she knew that if she wanted to, she could shatter the bones of Navin’s hand without breaking a sweat.
Donna was marked by magic. And not just any magic, but an ancient alchemical magic that had lain hidden behind legends for centuries. Yet knowing what she could do didn’t make her feel special. It didn’t make her feel powerful. All it did was make her feel completely and utterly alone.
But she wasn’t alone tonight; she was letting Navin pull her through the streets while trying to pretend she wasn’t completely terrified. Her fingers curled reflexively inside her favorite gloves as she resisted the temptation to flee.
“Stop being so cranky, Underwood. You’re just nervous.” Navin could barely keep the amusement out of his voice. He patted the back of her hand before releasing her.
Donna scowled. “What the hell have I got to be nervous about?”
Navin gave her his best “duh” look.
She punched him playfully on the shoulder, harder than she’d intended to. Her gloves might hide her tattoos—those strange symbols she refused to show even to Navin—but they did nothing to hide how strong she really was. Just one of the many secrets she was forced to keep. “The public story” about her arms and hands was that she’d had multiple skin grafts after being burnt in a fire. She hated the lies, but it wasn’t as though she’d had much choice (that’s what she tried to tell herself, anyway). And she always had to be so careful not to show her strength; she’d spent the last three years of living next door to Navin terrified that she’d do something to hurt him.
“Ow! Take it easy, Wonder Girl.” Navin rubbed his biceps, then flexed it to show off his impressive lack of muscle.
“Sorry.” Donna couldn’t resist grinning. Navin was such an idiot sometimes, and she loved him for it. Still, despite their closeness, there was so much she hadn’t told him about her family and about the Order of the Dragon. Like … pretty much
of it. And not because she wasn’t supposed to tell (which she wasn’t), but because she wanted to protect him.
He slung an easy arm around her shoulders as they crossed the street, making it just before the
sign flashed back up. “Come on, Don. Something’s up, I know you too well.”
She shrugged, unable to meet his eyes.
“Don’t panic—I’m not going to interrogate you right now. You can tell me all about it at the party.”
Donna grimaced. “I can’t wait.”
Navin fixed her with a mock glare. “You just don’t want to go.”
She pulled a face. “No,
? Partying with the ‘elite’ isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, and they’re not going to be happy when I walk through the door. You’re taking your reputation in your hands being seen at a party with me.”
“So young, and yet so cynical.”
“It’s true and you know it.”
Navin laughed. “What ‘reputation’ have I got to worry about? I slip under a lot of people’s cool-dar, that’s all. I’m different, but not different enough for them to bother with tormenting me.”
“Like they do with me, you mean.” Donna pouted.
He steered her past a homeless guy, wearing an AC/DC T-shirt and a ratty, floor-length coat, standing in the middle of the sidewalk. Other pedestrians flowed by him like water around a stone. “Come on, stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
“Can we leave when I’m not having fun anymore?” Donna hoped she didn’t sound as needy and vulnerable as she felt.
“Sure, we can leave. Of course, that means you actually have to
some fun before we can even consider going home … ” Navin ruffled her hair and grinned, ducking so she couldn’t hit him again.
That same grin now beamed across the dimly lit room at her, a room crowded with teenagers having that elusive “fun.” Donna pulled back her shoulders and lifted her chin, scanning the clusters of kids she vaguely knew but wished she didn’t. She’d spent most of her life trying to fit in, but it was so much harder ever since “the Incident.” In the wake of that event, she’d left Ironbridge High to be home-schooled by the Order … everyone considered it best that she only appear for exams, and special arrangements had been made. And so here she was now, surrounded by a bunch of kids she once knew, kids who thought she was the worst kind of loser. A loser with a capital
. A freak.
Although it was a totally hopeless task, Donna had promised Nav she would at least
try to blend into this scene.
And it wasn’t like she had anything else to do. She’d rather be home right now with Aunt Paige, but her aunt was on a business trip to Boston and wouldn’t be back until late.
Navin caught her eye from across the room again and smiled, white teeth flashing against his burnt cinnamon skin. His black hair was neat today, smoothed straight back and falling to the collar of his ever-present, black and red, fake leather biker’s jacket (apparently a mandatory accessory for riding his beaten-up old bicycle through the busy Ironbridge streets like he was on a Motocross track).
Nodding and trying to return his smile, Donna hoped Navin hadn’t noticed how miserable she was. She didn’t want to spoil this for him. But honestly, why did he bother? Her ex–school friends would never accept her. In fact, she’d been offered proof of this the minute they’d walked through the front door of the party. The first thing Melanie Swan had said to her—
her, more accurately—was directed to Navin. “What did you have to bring the
It was only Navin’s restraining hand on her arm that had stopped Donna from shoving the bottle of whatever Melanie was drinking straight down the girl’s throat.
Or perhaps somewhere even more painful, she reflected grimly.
Navin had glanced a warning at her, then taken the inexplicably popular class president to task for being nasty to a good friend of his. “I would’ve expected more from you, Mel,” he’d said, his voice unusually sharp. “You’re supposed to be setting an example. And I mean, a good one.”
Unbelievably, Melanie had eaten it up and apologized. To Navin, of course, not to Donna herself. She’d twiddled her bright blonde hair and started acting almost girly around him.
Donna had felt a stab of irritation.
Was she flirting with him
Shaking her head to clear it of that unpleasant image, Donna reached for the nearest drink, then realized it had alcohol in it and put it back down again. She didn’t want to go against Aunt Paige’s rules tonight, especially when it was so important to keep a clear head. She couldn’t afford to lose her temper again and give these people more reason to hate her. Not because she cared what they thought; if she never saw any of them ever again, it would be too soon. But she cared for
People like Melanie Swan made it so hard, though.
The crush of bodies and voices was overwhelming. The music beat a steady rhythm in Donna’s temples and through the soles of her feet. Excited students greeted each other with high-pitched shrieks or back-slapping, accompanied by whoops and hollers. Jettisoning any idea she might have had of “fitting in,” Donna worked her way over to Navin. She hung around the edges of his conversations for a while … for as long as she could bear to feel like a burden.
It was time to make her escape. Thinking that maybe it would be quieter on the top floor, Donna yelled in Navin’s ear that she was going to find a bathroom. When he’d understood and nodded, she left him to his shouted conversation with a couple of wannabe bikers. Head ringing, she moved away from the boom of the speakers, squeezed past a couple making out on the main stairway, and worked her way up to the top floor.
Things were just as crowded here as they had been downstairs. Bedroom doors were closed, and she could hear sounds behind them that made her blush and step quickly away. There was a line for the bathroom, headed by some shrill girls she used to know. Ducking into the only open doorway in an effort to avoid her ex-classmates, Donna hoped she wasn’t walking in on anything she’d rather not witness.
Thankfully, the bedroom was empty. A feeling of peace descended on her, and she wondered how this haven of quiet had escaped the hordes of partiers.
Then Donna’s fingers tingled, and for a moment she thought she could sense magic.
She froze, just inside the doorway, and tried to quiet her mind while allowing her senses to reach out further than might be considered … normal. When you’d grown up surrounded by magic, it was hard
to develop a sensitivity to it. It was no wonder that the members of the Order were so keen to train her in their ancient alchemical arts.
After a moment, Donna closed the door behind her and looked around for signs of anything
. Things felt pretty ordinary now, and she wondered if she’d imagined that whisper of magic.
The bedroom was quite masculine, done out in cappuccino and chocolate tones, with earthy rusts thrown in for contrast in the curtains and lamps. The lights were on, but dimmed to a warm glow. There was a black guitar gathering dust in one corner, like some relic of an emo adolescence, and a desk in the other corner, on which sat what looked like a very expensive computer. The walk-in closet hidden behind dark double doors was probably huge, and there was even an en-suite bathroom.
Donna felt a cool breeze caress the back of her neck and shivered, wishing she still had her coat on. Peeking behind one of the heavy curtains, she saw a set of ornate French doors. One of the doors stood slightly ajar. Further investigation revealed a small balcony and an iron stepladder that lead toward the roof.
She could use some air, even if it was chilled, near-winter air. Tugging her gloves up as far as they’d go—almost covering her elbows—Donna slipped out onto the tiny balcony and gripped the metal railings.
She pulled herself up onto the first step, feeling unsteady on what was little more than a fire escape. Her sequinned sneakers squeaked on the rungs and she could hear distant traffic passing beneath her feet. As she approached the top and realized just how high up she really was, she had a dizzying moment of vertigo. Her gloves slipped on the metal rungs and she held on tight, for once grateful for the magically enhanced strength in her hands.