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

“Me too,” he replies.

I spot my mother and avoid her as I weave through the crowd and head toward the cottage. Inside, I snatch my scrying dish off the worktable and fill it with clear rainwater collected from the garden bucket. With a quick jab, I prick my fingertip using a sewing needle and squeeze a single red pearl into the liquid, focusing on the first question at hand.

“Nahmthalahsh. Where is Warek, Finn’s father?”

The water will only show me the present—not the past and never the future. I must also know what I’m looking for. Exactly.

Staring at the glimmering surface, I conjure a thought of Warek. The water turns violet, then ripples like a puddle disrupted by a stone. An image forms, and I let out a deep breath. Warek sits near his horse with his back to a large boulder. He’s slumped over, legs outstretched, an empty flask lying in the dirt, inches from his hand. Mother was right. Too much drink.

At least that’s a worry I can forget. For now.

After changing out the water, I prick another finger and perform the simple ritual again. This time I envision the man I plan to kidnap and eventually kill.

“Nahmthalahsh. Show me the Witch Collector.”

The violet swirling slows and changes, stretching out and around until the surface grows still and flat, reflecting my answer. The Witch Collector rides his dark horse through Frostwater Wood, head ever hidden beneath that black cloak. Nearing the clearing outside Hampstead Loch, he’s surrounded by the day’s fading light and autumn color in the trees.

With a shuddering sigh, I toss the water out the window and steel myself for the night as quiet rage sparks to life inside me. I cling to it. Thrive on it.

Because the Witch Collector is still coming.

It’s only a matter of time.



The Witch Walkers guarding Frostwater Wood allow me passage, reconstructing the break in the boundary the moment Mannus has all four hooves on the valley side of the forest. I considered obeying Colden’s wishes about riding straight to Silver Hollow. It would be faster, and I’d avoid the coming dark that’s settling over the valley in a dusky light, but I can’t, even with Colden’s worries about my presence in the vale tonight. I’m late, and I owe the villagers the relief of knowing that—for this day at least—they’re safe from me.

When I arrive at Hampstead Loch, people scurry around the green. I lower my hood, hold up my hand, and ride through the masses.

“It’s all right,” I shout over their murmured voices. “I’m only here to tell you I’ll take no one from your village this year.”

What must be four hundred folk stand frozen, though they thaw once my intent registers. Others pop their heads out of doors, the disbelief on their faces turning to elation.

An elder approaches, pressing his heavily marked hands together in thanks. “My lord, join us for the harvest celebration. Let us feed you. Give you a place to rest.”

The offer is tempting. He cannot know how much so. I’m tired from a week on Mannus’s back and little rest thanks to Colden’s late-night visit. One look around has me considering, but I know better.

“Much thanks, but I cannot stay,” I tell him.

A little light-haired boy appears at my feet—a halfling child who’s likely been taught to fear me yet is too young to understand why. Smile bright and green eyes shining, he tugs on my boot, uprooting precious memories that take over my rational thought. Before I can decide better of it, I dismount, grab the little one, and whirl him in the air as though I’m a father and he’s my son. It’s a foolish action. The most foolish.

Slowing to a stop, my smile fades. A woman stands at my side, face pale and tight with alarm. She’s the boy’s mother, I assume, and my presence is not a welcome sight. I hand over the child.

The villagers gawk as confusion twists their expressions, but their glimpse of the real me quickly dissolves from their minds. Thunder rolls in the distance near the loch, followed by the sudden cacophony of horses screaming.

The entire village looks westward.

At first, there’s nothing but the terrible sound coming from the animals and an odd heartbeat in the air. But soon, smoke rises from the stables, the earth trembles underfoot, and fire-tipped arrows cascade in burning arcs across the bruised sky.

I blink, sure that this can’t be real. There’s no denying, though. Not when people begin wailing, thatch starts burning, and wardens run to save the beasts in the fired stables.

I mount Mannus and yell for the remaining elders and wardens, but they can’t hear me over the frantic voices of four hundred villagers. I turn to the woman with the little boy. Their eyes are wide and terrified.

“Run!” I shout. “Get to safety!”

As the woman bolts away, I ride west, determined to meet whatever fate awaits—until a wall of Eastland warriors on horseback comes into view at the southwestern edge of the glade.

Garbed in dark bronze leathers from head to foot, a flock of cawing crows accompanies them, a shrieking cloud blotting out the sky. Some Eastlanders carry pine-knot torches while a few dozen wave crimson flags—golden wings and an ever-watching eye embroidered in the silk.

The symbol of the old king blended with that of the new prince.

Most Eastlanders carry swords, hatchets, or bows, aiming their blades and arrows with deadly precision. Leading the charge are three men and a woman whose faces I can’t discern, but they ride hard and swift.

I yank Mannus around and head back toward the village. The promising rumble of hooves strikes the earth, and the eerie echo of a thousand wings beats at my back.

The reins bite into my palms as I draw back hard, pausing, uncertain. Hampstead Loch is a lone flower in a field surrounded by a swarm of bees. There’s no time. No way to run or call anything to order before warriors and their summoned predators are upon us.

And just like that, they are.

A screaming shadow of crows swoops low over the village, beaks tearing at flesh and plucking at hair and eyes. Behind them ride hundreds of horsemen, spreading through the village like a plague.

For a moment, I see nothing but the flash of blades, hear nothing but screams and swords meeting flesh, remembering too well the melody of battle, the tune of war.

Mannus rears on his hind legs. Coming to my senses, I cling to the reins with one hand and fight off a crow with the other. The second my horse’s hooves touch the ground again, an Eastlander rips past, vermilion war paint coating his braided gray hair. The blade of his curved knife catches my right arm and cuts through my traveling cloak. The pain is searing and shocking, but no more than the scene unfolding around me. There’s blood. Death. Fire.