The Witch Collector (Witch Walker #1)

He tests the knife’s heft in his hand, bites the blade between his teeth, and drags the dull edge across a piece of thick hide, which slices far easier than I would’ve guessed.

He cuts a sidelong glance. “Feels like bone. Tastes like bone. But it doesn’t look like bone, and it doesn’t cut like bone.”

Of course it doesn’t resemble the kind of bone we’re used to handling. Gods were practically indestructible. It took the last of them killing each other three centuries ago to end their reign, after all. Surely killing a man Neri only gifted with immortal life and rule won’t be as impossible a task as Finn makes it seem. I imagine one good thrust to the Frost King’s heart will do the trick.

As for the Witch Collector, he’s human—perhaps cursed to his duty unto death. At most, he’s a Witch Walker dedicated to his king. Helena thinks he’s an older man, and I agree. He keeps his head buried beneath his cloak, but he’s the same collector who has come to the vale since I was a child. I know his voice, and I know his tall frame. He won’t expect me to attack—no one ever challenges him. The element of surprise and a holy knife held to his throat should render him easier to overpower.

If I’m faster than him.

“I’ll try the grindstone first,” Finn says, the edge in his voice receding. “Then we can go from there. All right?”

I link my arm with his and nod, resting my head on his shoulder. The coiled tension in my muscles ebbs. Finn and I aren’t together anymore, not in the way we once were, but he’s still my comfort, even when he’s impossible. I don’t know how to live life without him, but I fear I’ll have to. When the moment arrives today, I’ll still give him—and his family—a choice, but if I’m honest with myself, he made that decision three years ago.

He presses a tender kiss to my forehead. “Don’t thank me, Raina,” he whispers. “Just don’t make me regret this.”



“I have a bad feeling. Don’t you understand that?”

Colden Moeshka leans against the small hearth of my hunting shelter, picking at a loose thread dangling from the gold-ribboned cuff of his blue velvet coat. I can smell the cold on him—that constant, crisp scent of winter that has clung to his skin for ages now.

He squats, tosses another log into the fire, and stokes the flames until the wood catches and sparks dance. I can’t help but stare. His alabaster skin glows golden under the firelight, and his dark eyes shine like black onyx mined from the Mondulak Range. Much of his flaxen hair hangs loose from its tie, lending his features an air of innocence that he does not possess.

Shifting on my wooden stool, I rest my elbows on my knees and rub my tired eyes. “Bad feeling or not, I have to go. I’ve never missed a Collecting Day. The villagers’ lives must go on as normal, at least until we know the truth. And the only way we can know the truth is if I go to the vale and get the girl.”

Already, I’m several hours late. Every Collecting Day, I wake near midnight to finish the last leg of a week-long journey through Frostwater Wood. I usually reach Hampstead Loch—the closest village to my cabin and Winter Road—around sunrise, and end my day at Silver Hollow by noon.

But last night, I woke to Colden slipping through my door in the darkness, alone and travel-weary from trying to catch up with me, all to deliver what I consider less than trustworthy news.

“We’ve heard rumors from the East along the spy chain before,” I remind him. “Nothing has ever come of them.”

“Yes, well, this rumor is different.” Colden holds a chilled hand over the rising heat from the fire, a useless effort to chase away the cold that lives in his veins. “There’s only one reason the Prince of the East would break King Regner’s peace agreement with me, and that’s if he’s learned that I’m much more valuable as a weapon against Fia than as an ally.”

Fia. I think of the Summerland queen often and wonder if she worries for Colden the way he worries for her.

“Everything I’ve ever done has been with Fia and all of Tiressia in mind,” he says. “If the prince knows my secret, they will come for me. You know they will. And they will destroy anyone who stands in their way.”

“Our borders are protected,” I tell him for what feels like the hundredth time. “Even without our Witch Walkers, the Iceland Plains and eastern range are impassable this time of year. The Eastlanders never have and never will survive sailing through the White Tides, nor can they make it past the Summerlander fleet to enter via the Western Drifts. The coast is well fortified. You’re safe, Colden.”

And Fia is safe. No king—and certainly no nameless prince—has bested her yet. She doesn’t need to deal with the Prince of the East getting his hands on her former lover, but if anyone can take care of themselves, it’s the Fire Queen.

Colden slices that black gaze across the room and arches a perfect brow. “As well as you know me, do you really think I fear the Eastlanders for myself? If they come for me, I’ll turn their army into ice statues for courtyard decorations, hang the Prince of the East’s icy balls on Winterhold’s gates, and dance on the shards of his pathetic, frozen bones.” He turns back to the fire as though some answer to our predicament lies in the flames and ashes. “It’s the Northland people I’m concerned about, Alexus. I can’t be everywhere at once.”

His words sound so assured, but they’re lies. The truth that Colden won’t admit is that the Prince of the East scares him. The prince is said to bear the stains of walking in the Shadow World—another rumor, and one I don’t believe. It’s been centuries since someone crossed the Shadow World’s dark shores. He was no mere man and wouldn’t have survived otherwise.

I hold my hands up in mock defense. “I’m only trying to ease your mind. It’s hearsay. There’s no need for upheaval until we have more evidence.”

He drops into the chair beside me, and his irritated expression morphs into concern. “I also worry for you. I’ve had dreams. No, not dreams,” he clarifies, his brow pinched. “Nightmares. For a while now.”

We’ve been back and forth about this situation since he arrived, but this is the first time he’s mentioned nightmares.

I gesture toward him. “Go on.”

“It’s like the Ancient Ones are warning me that danger is coming,” he says, “yet I don’t know how to stop it. All I know is that I fear the Eastlanders have discovered what I’ve been hiding, and that you don’t need to be in the vale tonight.”

Though I consider asking what he saw in his dreams to lead him to such conclusions, I lean over and rest my hand on his bouncing knee instead. His foot stills.

“You can’t have it both ways, my friend. We can’t get the truth without a Seer, and we can’t consult a Seer if I don’t go to the vale. I must get the girl. It’s the only way to end this worry.”

The girl with no voice and no witch’s marks. The so-called Seer.

Raina Bloodgood.

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