The Iron King

By: Julie Kagawa


“Look, Meghan,” Robbie said, “I heard what happened. It’s not a big deal.”

“Are you on crack?” I asked, glaring at him through my fingers. “The whole school is talking about me. This will probably go in the school paper. I’ll be crucified if I show my face in public. And you say it’s not a big deal?”

I drew my knees to my chest and buried my head in them. Everything was so horribly unfair. “It’s my birthday,” I moaned into my jeans. “This isn’t supposed to happen to people on their birthdays.”

Robbie sighed. Dropping his bag, he sat down and put his arms around me, pulling me to his chest. I sniffled and shed a few tears into his jacket, listening to his heartbeat through his shirt. It thudded rapidly against his chest, like he’d been sprinting several miles.

“Come on.” Robbie stood, pulling me up with him. “You can do this. And I promise, no one will care what happened today. By tomorrow, everyone will have forgotten about it.” He smiled, squeezing my arm. “Besides, don’t you have a driver’s permit to get?”

That one bright spark in the black misery of my life gave me hope. I nodded, steeling myself for what was to come. We left the nurse’s office together, Robbie’s hand clasped firmly around mine.

“Just stick close,” he muttered as we neared the crowded part of the hallway. Angie and three of her groupies stood in front of the lockers, chattering away and snapping their gum. My stomach tensed and my heart began to pound. Robbie squeezed my hand. “It’s okay. Don’t let go of me, and don’t say anything to anyone. They won’t even notice we’re here.”

As we neared the cluster of girls, I prepared for them to turn on me with their laughter and their ugly remarks. But we swept by them without so much as a glance, though Angie was in the midst of describing my shameful retreat from the cafeteria.

“And then she, like, started bawling,” Angie said, her nasal voice cutting through the hall. “And I was like, omygod she’s such a loser. But what can you expect from an inbred hillbilly?” Her voice dropped to a whisper and she leaned forward. “I heard her mom has an unnatural obsession with pigs, if you know what I mean.”

The girls broke into a chorus of shocked giggles, and I almost snapped. Robbie, however, tightened his grip and pulled me away. I heard him mutter something under his breath, and felt a shudder go through the air, like thunder with no sound.

Behind us, Angie started to scream.

I tried to turn back, but Robbie yanked me onward, weaving through the crowd as the rest of the students jerked their heads toward the shrieking. But, for a split second, I saw Angie covering her nose with her hands, and her screams were sounding more and more like the squeals of a pig.





CHAPTER THREE




The Changeling

The bus ride home was silent, at least between Robbie and me. Partly because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, but mainly because I had a lot on my mind. We sat in the back corner, with me crushed against the window, staring at the trees flashing by. I had my iPod out and my headphones blasting my eardrums, but it was mostly an excuse not to talk to anyone.

Angie’s piglike screams still echoed through my head. It was probably the most horrible sound I’d ever heard, and though she was a total bitch, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. There was no doubt in my mind that Robbie had done something to her, though I couldn’t prove it. I was actually afraid to bring it up. Robbie seemed like a different person now, quiet, brooding, watching the kids on the bus with predator-like intensity. He was acting weird—weird and creepy—and I wondered what was wrong with him.

Then there was that strange dream, which I was beginning to think hadn’t really been a dream at all. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the familiar voice talking to the nurse had been Robbie’s.

Something was happening, something strange and creepy and terrifying, and the scariest part of all was that it wore a familiar, ordinary face. I snuck a glance at Robbie. How well did I know him, really know him? He’d been my friend for longer than I could remember, and yet I’d never been to his house, or met his parents. The few times I suggested meeting at his place, he’d always had some excuse not to; his folks were out of town, or they were remodeling the kitchen, a kitchen I’d never seen. That was strange, but what was weirder was the fact that I’d never wondered about it, never questioned it, until now. Robbie was simply there, like he’d been conjured out of nothing, with no background, no home, and no past. What was his favorite music? Did he have goals in life? Had he ever fallen in love?

Not at all, my mind whispered, disturbingly. You don’t know him at all.

I shivered and looked out the window again.

The bus lurched to a halt at a four-way stop, and I saw we’d left the outskirts of town and were now heading into the boondocks. My neighborhood. Rain still spattered the windows, making the swampy marshlands blurry and indistinct, the trees fuzzy dark shapes through the glass.

I blinked and straightened up in my seat. Deep in the swamp, a horse and rider stood beneath the limbs of an enormous oak, as still as the trees themselves. The horse was a huge black animal with a mane and tail that rippled behind it, even drenched as it was. Its rider was tall and lean, garbed in silver and black. A dark cape fluttered from its shoulders. Through the rain, I caught the barest glimpse of a face: young, pale, strikingly handsome…staring right at me. My stomach lurched and I caught my breath.