The Witch Collector (Witch Walker #1)

“Your palms are calling to me today.” She winks.

Mena reads palms, something I’ve let her do a handful of times. She knows I’m reluctant and doesn’t press, but she likes to tease. She’s a dear friend, so I tolerate her prying mind.

I snatch a rock from the cart and place it on the ground, giving her a light-hearted smile. “What do they say?”

“That there are two things you need to learn. Or perhaps, not learn but come to accept. One,” she comes closer, smiles, and taps me on the nose, “is that you are more capable than you believe, dear one. Your strength is in your heart. And two…” She kneels beside me and pushes my hair over my shoulder, letting her hand rest there. “Victory only comes through sacrifice, Raina. I don’t know what’s weighing on you, but I know you’re in turmoil. I can see the burden. Most battles are hard-fought. Something must always be lost if you’re ever to gain. Don’t fear this. You will never move forward if you never leave things behind.”

Crying is the last thing I want to do right now—I’ve cried enough for all of Silver Hollow—but tears rise unbidden anyway.

I take a deep breath and blink them away. “Thank you,” is all I can think to say. I don’t know what her words mean for me, but they’re likely the last words of wisdom I’ll ever take from Mena, so I tuck them away. Something of her to keep forever.

A short time later, after Mena and I finish the stones, Finn finally arrives with Tuck trotting at his heels. Together, we stake torches and Tiressian flags around the green, but Finn is quiet, wearing a perpetual frown. I know him so well. Behind that heavy brow, his mind is tearing apart what-ifs. I also know that—while much of his concern is for me and what he fears I might do today—most of his worries are for his father’s whereabouts. Whether he can admit it or not.

If I could just get a moment to myself for scrying, I could ease him. But the village green is full of people, our cottage overrun, my mother’s friends darting in and out. And Finn? He’s my shadow.

The sun is warm enough that most of the dew has burned away, so when all the tasks are done, we sit on the grass, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, staring at the noon-day sky to the west. After a while, Tuck curls against my side, and I slide my fingers through his fur, though the act doesn’t hold its usual calming antidote. My thoughts about the feast hunters dissipate, replaced with enough anticipation that my heart begins a steady thumping against my ribcage.

“I love you, Raina,” Finn says out of nowhere.

My thudding heart all but stops. I snap my head around, searching his boyishly handsome face. Why is he saying this to me now?

The second that thought hits me, I realize that I know why.

“I felt you needed to hear that before doing something rash,” he says. He takes my hand and presses a tender kiss to my fingertips. “I love you, Raina Bloodgood. Forever.”

At first, I’m without words. I want to be giddy, like hearing him say he loved me used to make me feel. I want to be moved, so much that his confession changes my mind. It doesn’t, though, and I don’t know what to think about that.

“I love you too,” I sign and rest my head on his shoulder. Those words are true, and I need him to know they’re true, but I can’t look at him with this other truth no doubt shining in my eyes. The one that says our love is not enough.

It never has been.

“Do you want to know why I hate the Witch Collector and the Frost King?” he asks.

I nod. His words from this morning haven’t left my mind. I hate them too, he’d said. More than you believe or will ever understand. Finn’s reasons for loathing the two men are clearly different from mine. He still worships Neri, and I can’t understand why. Then again, no one from Finn’s family has ever been taken. He doesn’t know how much it hurts or how much the need to blame all those responsible can shatter the strongest faith and harden the most devout heart.

He leans closer and lowers his voice. “Because they took you from me. Maybe not physically, but we can’t have peace thanks to them.”

I lift my head and hold his gaze. “Then why not help me? Why not fight? Why not—”

He folds his hand around my fingers, silencing me. “Because I would rather have this life, with you, taking my chances in a land I know, than a life out there—” he jerks his head south “—where I have no idea what dangers we might face. You think you want freedom, yet you never consider that maybe the kind of freedom you long for doesn’t even exist.” He tilts his head, like nothing about me makes sense. “You and I aren’t capable enough with magick for the Collector to ever choose us, Raina. It takes the most talented of the vale to protect the far reaches of the northern borders. That is not us. Yet you’re willing to walk away from everything. For a dream.”

I yank my hands from his grasp, any moment of tenderness lost. “You cannot know who he will choose. And you are complacent. Willing to walk away from me for the safety of a prison. Fear rules you.”

“Of course fear rules me,” he snaps. “There is no love without fear, Raina. You’d understand that if you thought about anyone besides yourself and what you want.”

His words strike me hard as a fist. We stiffen, and the inch between us becomes a chasm.

Fixing my watering eyes on the horizon again, I do my damnedest not to think of all I could lose. I’m not only doing this for me—for a dream. I’m doing it for Finn and Hel and Saira, and anyone sweating with dread as we bide our time.

The God Knife is strapped to my thigh, and it’s so cold it burns. Tuck’s warm body presses it tight to my skin, frigid as an ice stake. I like the chilly reminder that it’s there. The cold focuses me. Any moment, the Witch Collector will ride over the western hills, and if I can be strong enough, if I can just out-move Finn and the Witch Collector and anyone else determined to stop me, everything will change.

For the better.

Except noon arrives and vanishes without any sign of the Witch Collector.

Finn and I sit for a long while, staring past the village outskirts to the valley beyond. Everyone else on the green stares too. A village holding its breath.

“Where can he be?” people ask. “He’s never late.”

“Something’s wrong,” others whisper. “First the hunters, now the Collector.”

Even when the sun lowers in the sky, he still doesn’t come. Neither do the hunters.

The halfling and human families grow tired waiting for the spectacle of Collecting Day, so they begin preparing for the harvest supper. The Witch Walkers still linger, watching the horizon with a mixture of exhaustion and hope in their eyes.

I shake out of my daze, press a kiss to Tuck’s head, and get to my feet. Finn squints up at me, his face hard.

“I need some time,” I tell him. “Alone.”

He glances at his family sitting a few strides away, such worry on Helena and Betha’s faces that my chest tightens.

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