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

His only reply had been: “Yes, daughter. I keep it. Because I must.”

Like Nephele, thoughts of my father are never far from my mind. Why he went to the fields the day he died—in the dead of winter—will forever remain a mystery, as will the question that might haunt me until my last breath: If the blade is so all-powerful, why didn’t he use it to save us? To save Nephele?

He had possession of the knife for years—a god killer, an immortal slayer, a divine weapon. Never once did he use it against the Frost King to change our circumstances.

Mother leans over my shoulder and unties her cloak as she eyes the knife. The scent of cloves, fallen leaves, and smoky coldness floats from her skin and clothes.

“You’re sharpening that old thing?”

She holds no faith in Father’s tales of finding the God Knife along the Malorian seashore. Though she’s kept the blade hidden away since its rediscovery, Mother still doesn’t believe in its myth and claims it has no power.

But I believe. Because I feel it.

In answer, I hold the dull, black edge to the candlelight. I need this knife sharp enough to penetrate sinew and bone, and I only trust one pair of hands to make sure that it can.

Unfortunately, those hands aren’t mine.

“Carry on, then,” Mother says. “But we have better knives for peeling apples, Raina.”

I need to get the knife to Finn. He usually works with iron mined near the Mondulak Range, but his hands are the hands I trust. I just need an excuse because Mother is right. We have other blades for the day’s work. I’ve no reason to be so focused on this one, none that she’ll believe anyway, and it’s not like I can explain my plan. Something tells me she wouldn’t be too keen to learn that her daughter means to kidnap the Witch Collector today at knifepoint.

Mother hangs her cloak by the door and crosses to the hearth to pour a mug of mulled apple cider. When she returns to my side, she watches over my shoulder as I position Father’s whetstone on a piece of oiled cloth. She says the knife isn’t made of bone. What bone is black as night and cold as ice?

But it’s bone. God bone. Not flint or steel. I’m so sure of it. Something deep inside that old marrow vibrates with every pass, as though I’m bringing it back to life.

More sweat beads on my brow as I work, sliding the edge along the stone with careful measure. What if I damage it? Can god bone be damaged? And what if the Witch Collector bests me today when I hold this blade to his throat?

My hands tremble at the thought of standing against him, enough that I falter in my work. Bone catches against stone—a nick of my fingertip. I gasp and suck the wound.

Gods’ death. Only I would accidentally kill myself with the very weapon that could save me.

“Raina, careful.” Mother sets her mug aside and studies the cut. She touches my chin, love softening her eyes. “I know you consider this knife a connection to your father, but maybe Finn should have a look at the blade if you’re so determined to use it. I prefer your beautiful hands intact.”

My pulse quickens. I feel like a child again, a little girl hiding something from her mother. But this is the perfect moment. I couldn’t have designed it any better.

“Finn is probably on his way to the shop,” I sign. “I will take it to him, and I will finish the apples long before noon. I promise.”

“Go.” She smiles. “But don’t be long. The harvest supper won’t prepare itself.”

I throw on my cloak, wrap the knife in a piece of animal skin, and head for the door.

“Daughter.”

I glance over my shoulder, and Mother crosses the small distance between us.

“You try so hard to hide it,” she says, “yet a mother knows her child better than all else. Do not let your loathing lead you—or us—to trouble, Raina. If you’re going to promise me anything, promise me that.”

Her sharp, indigo eyes dart to the bundled knife like she knows my every intention, and guilt and shame squeeze my heart for what I’m about to do. What I must do.

I lean in, kiss her soft cheek, and lie anyway.

“I promise,” I sign, and slip into the cold, gray light of day.





2





Raina





The Owyns’ blacksmith shop sits on the eastern outskirts of Silver Hollow, near the orchard and vineyard. It’s a long walk, but I’m brimming with enough nervous energy that I should arrive in a short time.

As I make my way across the green, I memorize the village’s every detail. Frost glistens on the thatch of each cottage and hut, and the last thin breaths of nighttime fires curl out of chimneys. Gardens are dying back, and the wildflowers lining the path to the fields have turned to colorless husks. Soon, snow will pile on the eaves and creep knee-deep over every door, and life here in the vale will grow bitter and difficult.

I think a lot about how much I hate this place, but the truth is that I only hate my circumstances—not having a choice. Because life could be worse. I could live in a barbaric clan in the Eastland Territories or deep in the sweltering Summerland sands, or I could live along the Northland Coast, constantly worrying about the war and danger across the sea. Instead, I live in a peaceful village filled with good people—Witch Walkers, halflings, and those with no magickal ability at all.

The guardians of Frostwater Wood.

Our Witch Walkers, along with those from Hampstead Loch, Penrith, and Littledenn, serve as the second line of defense in the Northlands, second only to the Northland Watch who protect our southern borders. Hour after hour, Witch Walkers’ voices carry magick into the ether along Frostwater’s rim to reinforce a barrier we keep intact at all costs.

I’ve walked that boundary many times, helping to strengthen the protection with my silent song. To a stranger, the barrier is nothing more than a shimmer in the trees, dew sparkling on a spider’s web in morning light. But it’s much more than that. It’s an impenetrable fortress with a single guarded entry point to the west near Hampstead Loch, through which the king and his entourage—namely his Witch Collector—are said to travel.

Sometimes, I wonder if we’re keeping intruders out of the wood and therefore out of the Frost King’s mysterious Winterhold.

Or if we’re keeping something in.

On the other side of the stone wall that separates the main village from the farmers’ steads, a handful of elders exit the temple after their customary morning prayer. Several villagers follow, including Finn’s mother, Betha, and his four younger sisters.

The Owyns are loyal Northlanders, dedicated to their worship of the ancient gods, especially the last Northland god in recent memory—Neri, a selfish bastard who’s been dead for three hundred years. Sometimes, being around the Owyn family makes me feel blasphemous, but then again, I’m anything but pious. I haven’t stepped foot inside the temple since Nephele was chosen.

And I never will, ever again.