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The Witch Collector (Witch Walker #1)
Author:Charissa Weaks

The harvest moon hangs like a pearl in the night sky, and the tang of smoke floats heavy on the air. Torches crackle beneath the evening’s silver glow, a circle of warmth blazing around the chilly village green.

Feasting tables are laden with summer’s final blooms and boast more food than I’ve seen in years past. In the center of the green lies the roasting pit, which should be empty, but a boar hangs on the spit—thanks to the animal’s poor decision to flee the western hills and head toward Silver Hollow not long after sunset.

Surrounding the pit are barrels of ale and fermented wine, men singing and making music, and a crowd of villagers losing their senses to the drink. Everyone is dressed in whatever finery they own, our traditional homespun put away this one night of the year. Some are happy, while others are sad, worried for their loved ones who never came home from the hunt.

I stroll to an empty table and sit. Earlier, when I returned to find Finn, he and his family had gone. I’d wanted to ease his worry about his father, to assure him Warek is all right, but Finn is bitter with me, and I cannot blame him. I’m leaving, and I think he knows.

The day’s events have left me with a sour stomach, but the sweet scents of stone-fired bread and baked apples awaken my hunger. I break off a chunk of the loaf, dip it in the soft fruit, and savor the warm bite.

I turn when a herd of children runs behind me, laughing and playing war. One snatches a torch, and they disappear into the valley’s darkness. Smiling at the children, my mother walks up and sits her wooden custard bowl beside a spray of stardrop blossoms and jasmine.

“Don’t you look beautiful. I knew you’d be lovely in blue.” She runs a hand over the sleeve of the dress she made me and begins braiding some of the stardrops into my hair. “There. That’s perfect,” she says when she’s finished. “All this white is so pretty in your dark hair.”

I look up at her, at her tender eyes and kind face. Am I doing the right thing?

She pinches my chin. “Do try to be happy, Raina. You look as though you carry the moon on your shoulders. There’s no collection this year, and tonight we say goodbye to the light, a night of celebration and balance. Let us show the Ancient Ones our thanks for the giving season. They’ve blessed us.”

She’s wrong, but it isn’t like I can tell her that.

In time to the music, she dances around the table and toward the roasting pit where she plunges a mug into a barrel of wine. Smoke from the torches and bonfire twirl around her while little glowing embers flicker and float toward the night sky.

My mother is sun and warm breezes, always comforting, and tonight, in her white gown, with her graying hair waterfalling down her back, she shines brighter than moon or flame. Her joy is a living thing. I stare in amazement as the villagers become enthralled with her laughter and merriment. She’s life and light and love, and for a moment I do as she asked. I smile and allow myself a few seconds of true happiness. Because if I’m thankful for anything, it’s her.

Mother’s stare finds mine, and she catches my smile. She grabs a second mug, dunks an amphora into the barrel, and dances over to me.

“There she is.” Face glowing, she fills the mug with rich, ruby liquid. “Drink, my girl.”

One glance at the wine’s calm surface makes me think of my scrying dish and what I should be doing right now—watching for the Witch Collector and Warek. When I look up, I notice Helena and the Owyn family walking with Tuck across the crowded green, and my guilt only deepens. Finn is stopped by friends, but Helena spots me and heads my way.

How gorgeous she is in her golden gown, the silken fabric draped over her statuesque frame. Her dagger is sheathed in a black and gold leather belt that I’m certain Emmitt, the tanner’s son, made for Helena and Helena alone.

As she strolls toward me, an image drifts across my mind’s eye, one of Helena wearing a golden crown. It’s a fitting picture. If I didn’t know her parents, I’d think she was half-goddess, half-warrior, born from a line of ancients.

Her face is downturned, though, her distress and concentration obvious. I should be pricking my finger every hour, asking to see her father. Instead, I’m at this celebration wearing a fancy dress with pretty paint on my lips and eyes, a dagger burning ice cold against my leg while I fill my belly. I’m an awful person, because my mouth waters with want the second the wine’s scent tickles my nose, and I suck down a drink.

Helena slides onto the bench in front of me.

“Here.” Mother hands Hel her mug of wine and pats her back. “You look like you need this more than I do. I’ll leave you two to talk.”

“Still no word about your father?” I ask once Mother has gone.

Helena downs a gulp of wine and shakes her head. “Nothing.” She lowers her voice. “I’m thinking about heading south to look for him later. Before dawn. Before Mother wakes. Want to come?”

Gods. I would, and that’s the only way I’d let Hel take to the Northlands’ open land alone, but I don’t plan on being here.

I lean forward. “Hel, give Warek more time.”

“I can’t, Raina.” She glances around with wary eyes. “I swore that if I wasn’t chosen for Winterhold this year that I would convince my father to take me to Malgros to enlist in the Watch. If something happened to him… If he doesn’t return…” She sets her mug aside and frames her face with her hands. “I can’t leave my mother and sisters.”

My mug hits the table harder than I intend. I need two hands for this. “The Watch? Surely you are not serious. Why are you only now mentioning this?”

The moment the words leave my hands, it hits me that I have no right to chastise Hel for not sharing this news. As much as I don’t understand it, this is her choice. One I know she’s made willingly.

“I didn’t mention it because I knew how you’d react.” She gestures at me. “And I was right.”

“The Watch is a difficult life,” I sign. “My parents lived it. You never know who or what might sail into port. It is a life of constant worry and fear.”

She shrugs. “Only if you’re scared of the Eastlanders or the Summerlanders.”

I widen my eyes at her. “As anyone should be.”

“I don’t expect you to understand,” she says. “And it’s all right that you don’t. But I believe that I can find purpose in protecting my land and my people. I could learn so much in Malgros. No one will look at me and hope to keep me safe by sticking me behind a forge or in the fields or harvesting apples. More is meant for my life than Silver Hollow, Raina.”

I don’t doubt that, but I still don’t know what to say. We spar by the stream every week, Helena giving me covert fighting lessons, and still, I had no idea she wanted any of this. I’m one of the people so protective of her, but I can sympathize. I know what it’s like to want a different life. But where I want a life of peace, Helena wants a life of duty.