The Witch Collector (Witch Walker #1)

To a king who doesn’t deserve it.

Emmitt strolls up to our table, brown eyes glittering. His smile is like a strike of lightning across his ebony skin.

“Raina.” He tilts his head in greeting, then turns to Helena and extends a calloused hand. “Care to walk with me, Hel? The bonfire is warm.”

Helena takes one last sip of wine and slips her hand into his. “Sure. Why not?”

They stroll toward the fire, leaving me to wallow in wine. Drenching my body with drink feels foolish but necessary. I’m weary from days of anticipation, but I also fear I might need the liquid courage for what lies ahead—especially once my eyes lock with Finn’s. Dressed in a forest-green jacket, white tunic, and dark trousers, he pulls away from his friends and walks toward me like a man with a purpose.

I tilt my mug and drain it, relishing the earthy bite. After a refill to the rim, I down another.

Finn stalks around the table and captures my hand. Hair perpetually in his eyes, he tilts his head toward the green where my mother and other Witch Walkers move to the music. “Come on. Dance with me.”

My every muscle tenses with irritation. It wasn’t a question but a command, and I don’t take well to commands. Still, I find myself following him toward the stone circle I helped Mena cast today.

Helena stands at the fire with Emmitt and a few of her friends. She looks away from them long enough to give me a small smile and arches a sharp brow when I pass. I roll my eyes and glare at the back of her brother’s head.

It’s just a dance.

We pause at one of the torches we set today, one whose flame is dying.

“Fulmanesh,” Finn whispers, and the flame comes back to life.

I should’ve harnessed the power of fire magick. I could’ve simply burned my way to Winterhold.

Finn pulls me close, and after a stiff moment or two, I relax in his arms. We begin moving in the ways of our people, bodies arching and swaying in time, softly at first. But his movements become more dominant.

He turns me around, my back to his chest, reveling in the music and cool night air. Taking a stardrop from my hair, he trails the white petals over the delicate lace trim at the top of my bodice before grazing the soft flower against my sensitive skin.

“You look stunning, Raina.”

My breaths come faster, and I can’t fight back a shiver. He slides his hand lower, down my bodice, tucking me against him.

Something in my stomach curls like a question needing an answer—something that shouldn’t be affected by Finn Owyn at all. He and I haven’t been intimate in such a long time, but I recognize the sultry tone of his voice, the familiar way his fingers rub circles below my navel, the way his body molds to mine.

A chill rises when his voice rushes hot across my neck. “So beautiful,” he whispers, pressing a kiss there.

I almost draw him even closer, almost urge him on, but from somewhere deep inside Frostwater Wood, a white wolf lets out an echoing howl, like a signal for the celebration to truly begin. We kick off our shoes, and our dancing becomes something more. The music changes from strumming strings to softly pounding drums, and the revelry gives way to ceremony.

Helena, Emmitt, and several other Witch Walkers join in. The shift in every mind reverberates through me, instinct taking over, our bodies flowing in a circle around the fire. For the first time in so long, I feel free.

I close my eyes and will my dance to keep time with the drums, with the internal heartbeat of the earth as I sway and spin, reaching toward the stars to call down the moon. Finn glides against me. I’d be lying if I said the contact didn’t make my heart race, my blood heat.

But here, beneath the moon, with the pounding rhythm of life beating in my veins, the world falls away, any thought of the Witch Collector along with it. Through ritual, we witches are connected, conduits between the Ancient Ones whose power radiates through the soil into the bare soles of our feet and the deities in the heavens who shine down upon us. For a time, that’s all I feel. There’s no Finn. No desire. No anxiety. No cold.

Nothing. Just connection.

It doesn’t last, though. From beyond my consciousness, worry drips a tingle down my spine, luring me back to the here and now. A smell floats on the wind—familiar and cloying.

Blinking at the stars, I dance harder, trying to reconnect, refusing to let anything poison this moment. It’ll all end soon enough, and I may never experience this again.

On the edge of my vision, Helena kisses Emmitt and leads him toward the darkness to the east. The pair disappear into the shadows, hand in hand.

Live. The word forms in my mind, but I send it across the village to my friend. Maybe one of us will find the kind of peace that stays tonight.

Finally, reality dims once more, until I’m so close to deep connection that I see nothing but a kaleidoscope of colors and light, feel nothing but power and Finn’s touch and a strange warmth radiating down my outer thigh.

Finn’s hands are everywhere, but then he’s discreetly gathering and lifting my skirts between us, his fingertips tickling the back of my thigh, drifting—

The connection snaps, the heat vanishes, and Finn lets go. For a moment, it’s like I’m falling, coming down from a high I’d forgotten existed.

Then I sense it—the absence. The source of the heat I’d felt is gone.

I spin around, only to find Finn Owyn slipping into the crowd.

With my knife.

He glances over his shoulder. A smirk curls one side of his mouth as he flashes the white granite hilt of the blade now hidden in his jacket pocket.

Come and get it, he mouths. Then he runs toward the orchards, vanishing in a mass of villagers.

I ball my hands into fists. Damn that man. This is not a time for teasing or games. According to what I saw in the water and given the time it takes to ride from village to village, I expect the Witch Collector to arrive within the hour. I must get that knife.

I head in Finn’s direction, but in a single breath, everything changes. Over the drumbeats and howling guffaws, a strange sound shatters the night.

I stop. Listen.

The sound mingles with the revelry and ceremony chanting but soon builds into a clamor that brings everyone—even the musicians and dancing folk—to a standstill.

Heart hammering, I shove my hair away from my sweat-dampened face and turn my gaze on the night sky to the west. My hands grow clammy with a cold fear that clings to my skin like the mist rolling in around our feet. I know that sound, those voices.

The children from earlier—the ones playing war.

They’re wailing.

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