To Kill a Wizard: Rose's Story (The Protectors of Tarak Book 1)

BOOK: To Kill a Wizard: Rose's Story (The Protectors of Tarak Book 1)
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To Kill a Wizard

 

Lisa Morrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2014 Lisa Morrow

 

All right reserved. No part of this publication may be produced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the author.

 

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

Cover Art By: Travis Stevens

 

ISBN-13: 978-1511843836

 

ISBN-10: 1511843837

 

First Edition

 

DEDICATION

 

There are so many people to thank, I don’t know quite where to begin. To my parents - who are the reason I believe in magic. To my brother and sisters - who were my first readers. To my Seven Evil Dwarves - who taught me that writing could be a group sport. And to my husband and children - your support gave me the strength to move mountains, or perhaps, just my pen, which sometimes felt just as heavy. Last but not least - to my readers, this story would’ve stayed buried in my computer if not for you.

 

~Lisa Morrow

 

Chapter One

 

Dark birds circled overhead, their cries like the cackling of old witches. I stood, frozen in place, staring at the door. Several times I willed myself to reach out and grasp the handle, but my body refused to obey.

The Queen’s Man, Taris, had sent word my father’s taxes were expected today. I’d gathered every copper I’d managed to save over the past year, but even so, felt the meager weight of the coin pouch in my hands with increasing dread.

I’d been so desperate to avoid yet another one of Taris’ verbal lashings that I’d attempted waking my father and sending him in my place. He’d sat up just long enough to take another swig of his beer, blink at me without comprehension, and drop his head back on the table. The sound of his snoring followed me out the door.

Closing my eyes, I willed myself to be strong. This would go as it had each year. Taris would chew me out, belittle me, and sneer his disgust, but swallowing my pride would buy us another year on the farm.

My eyes opened. With shaking hands, I reached for the handle.

The door swung open. Taris looked up at me. Even though the top of his head barely reached my shoulders, his superior expression said he was looking down on me. “Finally here? All right then, come inside.”

Squaring my shoulders, I followed him into his office, dropping the money pouch on his desk. The door closed behind me, sealing us into the sweltering room that stank of cheap perfume and sweat. Outside, I knew a pleasant breeze blew, but the only window was closed off by thick black curtains, keeping out the comforting scents of autumn.

His leather chair creaked as he sat down. “Let’s get this over with.”

Perching on the edge of the chair facing his desk, I watched in dread as he counted out each coin.

He took his time, letting the coins clink into a small pile in front of him, even though any fool could see we were terribly short. Again.

I clenched my hands tighter in my lap, willing my face to remain expressionless. “That’s all I have right now, but I’ll have more soon.”

Taris inspected each dull, brown coin between his stubby fingers before placing them back on the table in a neat pile. “Of course.”

With a confidence I didn’t feel, I raised my chin a fraction of an inch higher. “That’s most of it though.”

He leaned back in his chair, stroking the scruffy patch of blond hair on his chin. “
Most
of it is not all of it, as we both know, Rose.” He sighed loudly, but unconcealed satisfaction lit his beady eyes. “For years now, I’ve let you slide with less taxes than you owe. It seemed a terrible thing to me for a young girl to have no mother and a drunk as a father.”

I tried my hardest to look as if I believed the false sincerity in his voice, because there was nothing to gain by calling him a liar. By letting the truth slip past my lips,
you do nothing out of kindness
.

He nodded, as if satisfied by whatever he’d read in my face. “But there comes a point when even I can’t help you any longer. Your debt has become quite significant… enough to draw the attention of those higher ranking than myself.”

It had to be a lie. None of the queen’s debt collectors would care about the tiny sum owed by my father. Could they?

“What does that mean?” I asked, hating that fear crept into my words.

He heard it. A slight smile touched his lips. “It means that without someone to pay the sum owed, your father will be taken to a debtors’ prison.” This time his smile widened, as if he was unable to contain it. “And although your father seems a man strong of mind and body, his spirit seems quite another matter. I doubt he would survive his time there.”

My heart raced. “Once we finish harvesting the last of the crops—”

“You’ll come up short, just like every other year.” His stubby fingers went back to stroking the patch of hair on his chin. “Let’s cut to the heart of the matter, Rose, your father is a terrible farmer. And although I’ve seen you breaking your back and ruining the last of your beauty working his fields, one young woman simply can’t run a farm of that size by herself.”

I gritted my teeth to hold back all the things I wanted to shout. Anger would get me nowhere with this man. And sometimes, life was more about surviving than pride. “We should get enough to cover this year’s taxes.”

“But not the past years.”

I opened my mouth and closed it. No, not the past years.

Triumph shone in his eyes. “Lucky for you, I may have a way out of this… problem of yours.”

Sweat gathered at my brow. The fire burned too brightly in the hearth, creating a sweltering heat in the tiny office. The heat, combined with my nerves, had my stomach rolling. This wasn’t how today was supposed to be going. Always before, he’d lectured me and sent me on my way. What was he up to now?

“You know my son, Hefter, of course?” He reached out and picked up the tiny statue of the Goddess of War, Athenia, off his desk, studying the strong lines of the fierce deity’s face.

I nodded. Not only did Hefter look like a younger version of his father, but he was preparing to be one of Queen Gaudias’ cruel soldiers. Two unforgivable qualities, in my mind.

“He’s made no secret about his interest in you.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “From the first time we came to this insignificant town, he’s told me he plans to marry you one day.” Again, he paused, studying me. “In all honesty, I can’t see his attraction to you. Built like a man… and that dark hair and strange eyes. Well, you aren’t what most would call beautiful.”

The muscles in my legs bunched as I ached to stand, to shout in his ruthless face. But in that instant, the stone on my necklace warmed, startling me. I hesitated, feeling its heat between my breasts and knowing how unwise it was to ignore its warning.

“My son,” he continued, unaware of my boiling temper, “is a man from a good family, who will one day leave this wretched town and earn a good living as a Queen’s Man.” He leaned closer. “In other words, a man who by all logic is too good for you.”

I tried to keep my voice even, but failed. “Yet, he wants me.”

One of his brows rose at the venom in my words, and he slowly placed the statue back on his desk, facing me. “Yes, he does. But I can see that a girl like you has no sense at all, stringing him along but refusing him every step of the way—”

“Refusing him every step of the way is hardly stringing him along.” I eyed the statue, imagining merriment in the cruel goddess’s face.

He waved my words away. “As his loving father, I’ve come to terms with his… taste in women. And so, I have come up with a solution that should serve all of us quite well.” He pushed the pile of coins on the table towards me, sending them toppling over. “I shall pay your debt owed, as a bridal price, and you shall marry my son.”

I should’ve seen it coming, and yet, I’d been so focused on maneuvering through our conversation, I hadn’t. My jaw hung open. I could feel it. But, I couldn’t close it. He was offering to
buy me
in exchange for paying off my father’s debt?

“I’m not for sale,” I said, swallowing past the lump in my throat.

His condescending laugh cut like a knife. “Rose, did you listen at all? This is more than a fair deal. You get a husband who is far too good for you, and your father doesn’t have to die in a dark, filthy hole somewhere. You should be thanking me, not turning green.”

I sucked in a deep breath, realizing my body wanted to throw up the contents of my pitiful lunch. “No.”

“No?” The question held a dangerous note. “No to my offer? Because, my girl, that would be very, very unwise.”

It would be. He’d punish me for my insolence, and go after my father.

The Queen’s Men represented the queen, and so, held more power over every citizen of Tarak than such unworthy men should ever be allowed. Our lands would be taken, and I’d be left with no way to free my father from the prisons. That didn’t mean I was going to sell myself like a prized cow, but nor could I flat out refuse him. I needed to buy myself some time.

I sat up straighter and looked him in the eye. Red had darkened his face and veins stood out on his neck. This was a man about to unleash his fury. “No. I can’t possibly accept your offer without talking to my father first.”

He eased back in his chair a bit. “I was under the impression your father cared very little about his unwanted child. But…” he shrugged, “the law does require his approval, so go home and ask it of him.”

Rising from my chair, I purposely stared down at my boots. “Of course. However, since The Choosing ceremony is tonight—”

“You can tell me his answer tomorrow,” he interrupted. “But as you aren’t the sort of girl who gets Chosen, I shall begin preparations immediately.”

My stomach flipped. “As you will.”

I turned to go, but his words stopped me. “Don’t forget your coins.”

With heavy footsteps, I took the coins off his desk and let them clink back into my money pouch. The statue of the goddess of war sat mocking me.
You’ve lost this battle
, she seemed to say.

A tiny part of me wanted to toss it down and watch it smash on the floor, to declare to them both that I hadn’t lost yet. But if the goddesses truly saw all, the last thing I wanted to do was anger one of them. Frustrated, I turned and walked away.

“And if you see my son, don’t tell him. I want to give him the good news myself.”

“Of course.”

I left his office and stepped out into the streets of Duggery. The cool autumn air carried the heavy scent of smoked meat. People rushed by in the streets, talking and laughing in a lighthearted way that reminded me of the celebration about to take place. A few gazes clung to me, but only briefly before looking away.

Turning right, I wandered down the dirt road and off the small street, crowded by thatch-roof houses. The hard cobblestone of the main road jarred my dragging steps as I walked blindly down the familiar path.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was aware of the unusual number of people on the street, already dressed in their finest clothes. They walked in the center of the road, unconcerned with carts or riders. Most of the merchant shops sat closed and empty, their occupants no doubt already preparing for the celebration.

“Rose!”

I looked up as Sirena raced towards me. Although she was just another petite, fair-haired person on the road, she stood out like the moon on a cloudless night.

“How did it go?” she asked, handing me one of the pastries in her hands.

I shook my head, my stomach rolled in protest at just the sight of it. “Not good.”

The merriment that was second-nature to my best friend left her eyes. She wrapped the pastries in a handkerchief and shoved them in her pocket. “What happened? If that old crow yelled at you again about your
father’s
debt—”

“No,” I interrupted. “It’s worse this time.”

All further explanation died on my lips. The implications of the marriage I’d be forced into came crashing on me all at once. My breathing stopped. My lungs burned as I fought to suck in air.

“This way.” She pulled me off the main road. “Just take deep breaths.” Her hand rubbed small circles on my back. “Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it, don’t worry.”

But we couldn’t, because this problem was too big for us. There was no money to pay off my father’s debt, and there was nowhere I could run where the Queen’s Men couldn’t find me. And even if I did, my father would still be taken to prison.

I was trapped.

And for once, Sirena wouldn’t understand. Hefter, after all, was the only man in the village she’d consider marrying. The one man who wasn’t madly in love with her.

“Tell me.” Her voice was low and soothing, as if I was a frightened animal.

I didn’t want to tell her, but I also couldn’t hide it. Sucking in air, I stood straighter, willing my panic down. “If I marry Hefter, Taris will pay off the debt. Otherwise, father will go to debtors’ prison.”

“Oh.” An uncomfortable silence hung between us. “But you don’t like Hefter, do you?”

“Not like that,” I answered quickly.

Her permanently wide blue eyes sought mine. “Would marrying him be so bad?”

I cringed, knowing my words would hurt. “For me it would.”

The freckles on her pale skin grew darker. “But… why?”

It was too hard to explain. Hefter set me on edge. I sensed something cruel in him… the same thing I saw in his father. He’d never actually done anything malicious to me, yet the idea of marrying him sent every hair on my body standing on end.

“I don’t know, but I couldn’t.”

Her expression said she might argue, but her tone said differently. “And if they send your father away, they’ll take his lands. You’ll be left with nothing. Is that about it?”

“Yes,” I whispered, feeling hollow.

She turned her pain-filled gaze away from me. “All right, don’t say any more. You know the Queen’s Men can hear everything.” Her pause lasted a minute too long. “I guess that gives us an even bigger reason to be Chosen tonight.”

“Sirena, you don’t understand—”

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