The Witch Collector (Witch Walker #1)

I’m not sure this is my wisest decision given what I must do today. Healing can be tiring, depending on how near death is and the size of the life I’m weaving back together. A tiny dove should be a small effort, though. I can’t just let her die.

Concentrating, I imagine the dim strands becoming a gleaming braid, and the dove soaring over the valley. This is the first part of every rescue—to manifest a vision of my will. Next, I drudge up the ancient song I’ve known since the first time I saw the threads of life in a dying doe and form the lyrics with my hands.

“Loria, Loria, anim alsh tu brethah, vanya tu limm volz, sumayah, anim omio dena wil rheisah.”

The strands glow and tremble, drawn together like iron to lodestone. I keep singing, repeating the words until the strands have entwined and the gilded construct of life is once again solid and resplendent.

The dove’s wings flap and ruffle. When I open my eyes, her heart pounds so hard that her breast moves with each beat. Her little eyes open too, and she’s up, flying from wall to wall. I shove open the shutters and watch her take off into the cold, vanishing in the distance near the forest’s boundary.

I’m a little tired and dizzy, and cold sweat slicks my brow, but I’ll recover. The strangest part of healing a life so close to its end is that the stolen death coils inside me like a shadow. I only have a handful of deaths tucked away, but I feel the tiny darkness of each one.

I begin to close the shutters, but instead, I pause and take in the view of morning in the village—possibly my last. To the west, where Frostwater Wood curves over the hills, the midnight shift of Witch Walkers moves along the forest’s edge near the watchtower, gliding through the gloom like ghosts. And in the mist, just beyond the village green, a few women appear from the east. They carry baskets of apples on their heads, surrounded by clouds of their own breath. All else is calm, for now, a village on the cusp of waking for the most dreaded day of the year.

After stoking the fire, I exchange my cloak for a shawl and head to my worktable. The sun is almost up, which means that Finn will wake soon, and like the others carrying their apples, Mother will return from the orchard any moment. There’s work to do, a plan that I must see to the end, though it’s hard to imagine leaving all I’ve ever known.

But I cannot stay. We live in a world where wars simmer between two of Tiressia’s continental breaks—the Eastland territories and the Summerlands to the south. For centuries, every eastern ruler has tried to conquer the southern lands, longing to claim the City of Ruin—a citadel believed to hold the Grove of the Gods, and the burial ground of Tiressia’s deities.

Or so says the myth.

To the Frost King’s credit, I’ve never known war. The Northlands have remained neutral, but our citizens—whether protecting the coast, the mountains, the valley, the Iceland Plains, or the king himself—must live according to the Frost King’s wishes, guardians above all else. I believe I have the power to change that, to end his immortal life and make us a free land governed by its people, free to live as we choose.

And that’s what I aim to do.

Father’s old whetstone sits at the bottom of his trunk. I gather it from beneath his other work tools and scoop a cup of rainwater from the wash bucket for the grinding task. Just as I sit to work, Mother bursts into the cottage carrying a bushel of apples. She kicks the door shut, but not before a bitter wind out of Frostwater Wood follows her inside. With a grunt, she drops the laden basket.

The cold wraps around me, and I tug my shawl tighter, the colorful one Nephele knitted ages ago. Lately, her memory is everywhere. Even the rime-covered apples at my feet make me think of her. Nephele loved the orchard and enjoyed the Collecting Day harvest. She also didn’t mind living on the Northland break of Tiressia’s shattered empire, nor was she bothered by the touch of winter that clings to our valley after every harvest moon.

I’m the opposite. I hate living in the Northlands. I hate the Collecting Day harvest, and I hate this time of year. Each passing autumn day is another reminder that the Witch Collector is coming and that Silver Hollow, with its rolling green hills and sun-washed flaxen fields, will soon be buried beneath winter’s suffocating frost.

Mother wipes a strand of graying hair from her brow and props elegant hands on her wide hips. “I know you’ll think me foolish,” she says, “but this will be a good day, my girl. I feel it in my bones.”

Mother’s witch’s marks are few, her magick simple. The swirls of her ability glisten under a fine sheen of cold sweat, faint silver etchings curving along the tawny skin of her slender neck.

Setting the cup of rainwater aside, I force today’s first smile. My fingers are stiff with cold when I sign. “I am sure you are right. I should get to peeling.”

A beat later, I spin on my stool, turning away from her and those knowing eyes.

My smile vanishes as I light the candles that illuminate my work area. I want to avoid this conversation. It happens every year, and every year the Witch Collector proves Mother’s intuition wrong.

Still, I would never call her foolish. Though a dreamer with her head in the stars, my mother is the wisest person I’ve ever known. It’s just that this day is never good, and this year it might be worse than ever before.

Because of me.

I unlock the worktable drawer and retrieve our salvation, the reason I’ve found such bravery for taking back our lives: Father’s old knife. The God Knife, he called it, said to have been fashioned by an eastern sorcerer from the broken rib of a long-dead god. It had been missing since the winter after my sister was chosen, lost in the snow-covered fields the day Father’s heart stopped beating.

A few weeks ago, a group of farmers found the blade during harvest, half-buried in the soil of a soon-to-be fallow field. One of them, Finn’s father Warek, recognized the knife by its unusual white granite hilt, strange black blade, and the amber stone set into the pommel. He made sure the farmers returned the find to my mother.

“What’s so special about a God Knife?” I asked one night when I was still small enough to sit on Father’s knee. My father carried that knife everywhere he went. There was no question that it was important.

He’d just come in from harvest. I still remember the way he smelled—like musk and field. I traced the veins in his hand, following his witch’s marks—the marks of a reaper—that branched like tree roots over his knotty knuckles.

“The God Knife is a god remnant,” he answered. “God bone, fashioned by the hand of Un Drallag the Sorcerer. It harkens to the soul of the god from whose body the bone was taken. It can kill anyone and anything, the blessed and the cursed, the forever living and the risen dead—even other gods.”

“Yet you keep it,” I’d said, not understanding the depth of his words or the fact that they would one day change my world.

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