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

Finn drags a hand through his thick hair and tilts his mouth into a smirk. “You are Tiressia’s worst liar, Raina Bloodgood. You’re up to something.”

I move to stand with my back to the heat of the forge, trailing a hand along a row of finely crafted dagger and knife belts Finn sells to his customers. Last night, I considered what it might be like to tell him every detail of my plan to set Nephele and the Northland peoples free of the Frost King’s rule. To plead with him to be brave and help me.

But now that the moment is here, I can’t bring myself to be honest. He may know how to form and wield every weapon created, but Finn is a lover, not a fighter. He’s content where I’m restless, sated where I starve. He will call me ten kinds of foolish and try to stop me.

He could very well succeed.

“I am not lying.” I form the words steady and sure, hoping that I’m convincing. “Mother sent me. We are using the knife to clean the wild deer for tonight’s supper. The hunters will return.”

Better to cling to a terrible lie than reinvent another.

He narrows his brown eyes, and the need to cower behind something sweeps through me. Deceiving Mother was bad enough, but deceiving Finn might be even more challenging.

Finn has been my first everything. My first friend. My first fight. My first kiss. My first lover. My first heartbreak. He’s the only person with whom I ever shared the knife’s story. He’s also the man I decided not to build a family with because he refused to leave the vale, and I didn’t want to stay. My life’s moments are filled with him. He reads me as plainly as any book.

After a groan and pointed glare, he rests his chair on all four legs and reaches for the God Knife. He’s still half asleep, and he’s either grown disinterested or annoyed.

Or both.

“Wild deer, huh?” He twists the pommel in his hand, and the amber stone reflects the forge’s firelight. He looks up at me, narrowing his eyes again like he’s sorting me out. “You wouldn’t happen to mean a Witch Collector instead, would you, Raina? Perhaps a Frost King?”

Annoyed it is.

I take a seat in the chair across from him. “Finn, stop. Please do not make this difficult. I need your help.”

Finn returns the knife to the table and speaks to me with his hands. “Help with what? Killing the Witch Collector? Bringing the Frost King’s rage down upon all our heads? I remember your father’s tale. Surely you do not believe that this knife will change everything. Or anything, for that matter. If it could, do you really think Rowan and Ophelia Bloodgood, of all people, would not have tried?”

My chest tightens at the sound of my parents’ names. When they met in the Northland’s southernmost city of Malgros, my father was Head Sentry for the Northland Watch, a guard witch assigned to protect the port. My mother was also a guard, often stationed near my father’s territory. A short time after Mother became pregnant with Nephele, tensions between the southern queen, Fia Drumera, better known as the Fire Queen, and the East’s King Regner, created unrest. As the southern and eastern breaks prepared for war, the Northland peoples along the coast feared the conflict might finally spill across the sea to our shores. Then Fia Drumera killed Regner, and soon, in the east, a mystical prince with no name rose to power.

My parents were granted leave to raise their family but were required to head north and help protect the vale. They were never loyal to the king. But they were loyal to their land and their people.

“I cannot say why they never tried,” I tell Finn. “Only that I am not them.” I grab the knife and animal skin and set them in my lap. “Will you help me or not? I need the blade sharpened. That is all I ask.”

“You want me to hone a killing blade.” He folds his muscled arms across his chest. “That is, at its essence, what you said when you walked in here. Something to cut through flesh and bone alike. And I know you do not mean wild deer.”

I tighten my fingers into fists of silence. Every blade he forges is used to kill, and that’s saying a lot. People come from all around the Northlands to purchase the beautiful and deadly work of Finn Owyn, to seek his expertise. He’s only conflicted now because it’s me who’s asking for his help.

“I want you to sharpen a God Knife,” I reply. “And believe in me.”

“A God Knife.” Finn scrubs his hand down his face, his frustration evident. “Made by the great sorcerer Un Drallag, a figment of Eastern lore. Forged from bone and the essence of a deity, yes? Which god, Raina? Which god do you think this bone belonged to? Neri? Asha? Urdin? Thamaos? One of the ancients? Loria herself?”

“I…” My fingers still. Father never mentioned that part. I always figured he didn’t know, though I’ve always wondered. “He never said,” I reply, “but it does not matter for the task at hand.” I pause and add, “Wild deer and all.”

A grin tests one corner of Finn’s mouth but fails to reach completion. He pushes off his knees and stands, skirting the table between us, a weary expression shadowing his face. Crouching at my feet, he rests those strong, black-stained and blistered hands on my thighs like they belong there.

When he looks into my eyes, I taste the bitterness that has lived inside my heart ever since he refused to run from the vale with me three years ago. I could’ve loved him the way my parents loved each other. We could’ve had so much more than this. Then again, if we’d left, I wouldn’t have had this chance to save my sister and maybe every single person living in the Northlands from enduring lives they did not choose.

Gently, Finn tucks a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “You know that I believe in you, in all things. And I’ll sharpen this knife until it can flay flesh and penetrate bone if that’s what you want. But you are no match for men like the Witch Collector, Raina. And certainly not the Frost King. I hate them too—more than you believe or will ever know. But if I think, even for a moment, that you’re about to do something foolish once the Witch Collector arrives today, know that I won’t stand there and watch it happen. I can’t. I will always save you, even if it means saving you from yourself.”

I clench my fingers again. There are so many things I want to say, none of them kind. Instead, I hold Finn’s stare until he takes the knife, slips on his leather apron, and steps to the forge.

“Fulmanesh, iyuma.” He speaks the words over the low flames and they rise, supplying more light.

After a moment, I follow, silently swiping one of the dagger belts I noticed earlier while he’s not looking. Shoving the leather into my skirt pocket, I watch over his shoulder. I’m more nervous than I want to be now that he holds the God Knife. He could so easily take it from me.

Finn studies the weapon. “Why is it so cold?”

I shrug. “It has been like that since I can remember.”