The Witch Collector (Witch Walker #1)

“Raina!” Helena, the second-to-the-oldest Owyn child, starts my way.

Not a day goes by that I don’t talk to Hel. I’ve known her all her life, but when I lost Nephele, Helena wouldn’t leave my side. She filled an emptiness in me that not even Finn could reach.

I wave, and the girls pick up their steps to meet me, their light brown faces drawn tight against a cold wind. Betha seems reluctant, and she wears a grim expression on her face.

The twins, Ara and Celia, are unfazed. They run and cling to my legs while Saira, the least of the Owyn family, leaps into my arms and hugs my neck. She pulls back and signs the only phrase her tiny hands have mastered, thanks to her mischievous brother.

“Raina needs a wash.”

Saira giggles, and a genuine smile spreads across my face. She’s a small wedge of joy in an otherwise joyless day.

Helena approaches, her black hair fighting the breeze. The dagger her father and brother gifted her last year when she turned eighteen is forever strapped to her side, even during prayer. She’s tall and strong like her father but soft in the ways of her mother.

The Owyns dabble in fire magick—wise for blacksmiths—though the bulk of their skill lies in common magick like the rest of the villagers. Helena’s silvery witch’s marks are bold today against her fire-gold skin, though, outlined in a pretty shade of ocher.

When I meet her stare, she pokes my side and smiles, but her wild spirit doesn’t stir, not even in her eyes.

“Morning, Raina,” Betha signs. She flashes a tight smile and glances at her small daughters, a silent way of saying she doesn’t want them to hear the worries so evidently etched onto her face.

After all the years she’s known me, Betha still hasn’t learned how to sign anything more than the most basic communication, nor have the others—save for Finn and Hel.

I look up into Helena’s deep, brown eyes. “Everything all right?” I sign.

Whatever’s bothering them has nothing to do with Collecting Day. The Owyns are Witch Walkers, and Finn and Helena are still of age for the Witch Collector’s choosing. The Owyns believe the Frost King does what he does for a godly reason, a man gifted with insight from Neri’s eternal blessing, a leader who means to protect our lands. I know they’d be saddened to lose any member of their family today, but they view sacrifice as duty—unlike me. Something else must be wrong.

“The feast hunters should have returned from the mountains last night,” Helena signs, “in time to prepare their kills for the harvest supper. There has been no sign of any of them. Not even Da.”

I set Saira on her feet and watch her skip toward the village. Every autumn, the feast hunters journey south toward the Gravenna Mountains, hoping to trap and kill a few Great Horns for the harvest supper. Scattered steads and small villages lie between our valley and the mountains, but other than that, the land is a stretch of rolling hills and open grassland. It’s certainly not a dangerous trek for hunters who’ve traveled that ground for years.

“I am sure they only lost track of time,” I reply. “Warek will return with his merry band on his heels, as though he is the greatest hunter of them all.” I squeeze her hand in comfort because her unease is visible, tightening into twin lines between her eyes. I don’t know if I’m right, but later, after I’ve talked to Finn, I have a way to find out.

Healing isn’t my only gift.

Helena bites her lip. “I hope you’re right, but say a prayer to Loria just in case?”

“Of course.”

Helena knows me well enough not to include her Northland lord in her request. Loria is the goddess of all creation, and though I can’t say that I believe the Ancient Ones listen anymore, Warek was my father’s closest friend, and so—impious as I might be—I will pray to our maker.

Just not to Neri. Never to him. He’s the reason we must deal with the Frost King in the first place.

Helena and I bump forearms. She presses her forehead to mine and manages a soft smile.

“Tuetha tah,” she says, an Elikesh phrase that means My sister.

I press the signed form of the words against her chest, feeling guiltier with every passing second. I keep little from Hel, except the story of the knife. But I haven’t mentioned my plan, or that I’m leaving the vale—for real this time. Helena loves me, but she would never understand.

She gathers her sisters and mother and herds them toward the stone wall. Although her face is still shadowed with worry, her smile brightens, and she winks playfully over her shoulder. “Finn is in the shop if that’s where you’re going. See you on the green at noon?”

I nod. As if I’d be anywhere else.

Outside the forge, I step over Tuck—the lazy, golden shop dog I adore—to reach the entry. A stroke behind his soft ear garners a beady-eyed glance, but other than that, he doesn’t move. Such love for the woman who stole death for him once when no one was looking.

Inside, I’m not surprised to find Finn sitting in a dark corner, leaned back in a chair with his feet propped on a worktable, sipping from a steaming mug of mead. This used to be Finn’s father’s shop, and it shows. Tiressia’s green and indigo flag hangs from the rafters while Neri’s pennon covers the wall above Finn’s head. The image of a creature more wolf than man stares at me, embroidered in ash-colored thread on blue and white silk.

The sight disgusts me.

The door creaks and Finn glances up. His wild black locks are mussed and hanging over his forehead, his eyelids heavy. In better light, his skin—like Helena’s and his father’s—appears marked with silver, save for the outline of dim amber.

“From that look you’re wearing, I take it you saw my family.” He downs a long drink and lets out an irritated sigh. “Father is fine. They’ll make it back in time for supper. They’re hunters—the best. I’m not worried.”

That’s Finn’s way of stopping a conversation he doesn’t want to have before it begins.

I don’t mind this time. I agree with him. The feast hunters know our lands better than anyone. Besides, what could’ve gone wrong that all seven would not return?

“Yes. No need to worry,” I sign. Crossing the space between us, I set the wrapped knife next to Finn’s feet and flip the skin back. “Could you sharpen this for me?”

Finn looks at the God Knife, then back at me, and furrows his brow. “What for? That’s the knife my father found, right? A bit large for peeling apples.” He takes another sip of mead, watching me with a curious eye.

“It is not for apples. I need it to help clean the Great Horns for the feast. It must be sharp enough to cut through flesh and bone alike.”

Gods, what a terrible excuse. There won’t be any Great Horns for the harvest supper if the hunters don’t return in time.

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