The Fragile Tower

The Fragile Tower is book one of the Cold Lands series.

Grace Lane is fourteen and an outsider who has been looking for something to make her significant for most of her life. When the midwinter fair arrives at St Matthew's Park only a quarter mile from her house, it seems to be designed to draw her in. But after she wins a gold piece from a circus-performer in a strange test, her brother takes the coin and then vanishes.

Grace's ma admits that she knows where he has been taken - to the Cold Lands where she was born, in order to be bound to the workings of its Queen and her magics. Grace realises that she has to get him back before his twin sister can be taken too. With the help of a book and her mother's grudging confession, Grace steps out of her world and into the Cold Lands.

She enters the extroardinary and beautiful Fragile Tower, a place kept working by the magic of boys linked and kept captive. Grace must face ancient magics and the truth about her family to free Benjamin.

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8. The Bookseller's List

Grace lay still in her bed, her ears straining to catch every movement her mother made in the next room. Dad had flaked out at nine, and it was just Ma who had paced the house until eleven before climbing the stairs. But even upstairs, she had gone on prowling restlessly, apparently climbing into bed and then getting up to fetch water, or use the bathroom, or find a book. 

She had been like this all day, and Grace understood it. She would have been the same without the knowledge that she was about to do more than wait. Ma had started a dozen conversations she then stopped attending to, and half-cleaned several areas of the house aggressively, before picking up her car keys at three o’clock and declaring that Grace should go to kick-boxing as usual.

Dad, just back in from another round of questioning the neighbours, had protested that Grace was exhausted. But Grace herself had been eager to go. Everything was ready for the evening by then, and she would never be able to sleep if she went back to bed. She was too anxious – and too excited, as well. And she was glad that she’d gone once she was there, her legs and her hands moving rapidly to hit the pads. It calmed her, and reminded her that she wasn’t defenceless.

Grace glanced anxiously at her bedside clock. 23:19. She willed her mother to settle down.

Go at midnight, Mr. Fredrickson had told her. It won’t be easy for you the first time you travel, so do it at the easiest time.

How do I know the easiest time?

Look at the number on the disc. It tells you, here. Midnight when the moon is full up until it’s at the next phase...

She glanced at the large backpack where she’d hidden it under her desk, and went over in her mind the things Mr. Fredrickson had told her to bring with her.

He had listed it all for her, while they sat in two upright leather armchairs in front of his stove in the back room. He had made her write it all down, too, in a notebook he took from his stock-room.

Food and water for three days’ travel.

Once you’re in the kingdom, you’ll be able to buy more. This is just for the first day and the day when you and Benjamin have to make your way back.

She liked the confidence in his voice when he said that, as if there were no doubt in the world that she’d be able to bring him back. She’d tried to write it down just as confidently. He had asked her if she could buy it for herself, or take it from her parents’ supplies, and she had nodded, already planning meals that didn’t weigh too much.

She looked at the clock again. 23:22. Her father was snoring now. There were no further footsteps from her mother. Perhaps she was in bed now.

Money.

She had blushed slightly. I think I’d use most of it up on the food-

Not dollars, copper marks.

He had stood and gone to a little cupboard beside the room’s one window. He reached in and pulled out a varnished box, which he brought over and placed on the dark wooden coffee-table. He opened it on dozens of little leather pouches, and he took one out and loosened the draw-string to show her a handful of bright orangey coins which reminded her of newly minted pennies.

The currency in the Kingdom is copper-based. Gold and silver, pewter and bronze, in fact most of the metals we consider to be valuable, are unstable there. They can carry magic, so they can be modified to multiply or to vanish and return to their original owner after payment. But copper won’t carry possibility.

He had handed her two of the leather bags, and refused to take any payment in return. He had argued, with a tut, that he was hardly using them here, was he?

Grace slowly got out of bed and pulled on her hiking trousers. Instead of putting on her pyjamas earlier on, she had dressed in the warmest under-garments she had, and now she slid the trousers over them, and pulled a thin technical top over the top. The other three layers would have to wait until she was outside. She was sweating as it was, and she hadn’t yet picked up the heavy pack.

A rowan-wood staff.

This, too had come from Mr. Fredrickson’s store, since Grace had never thought to own one.

Rowan-wood protects you against other workings, as well as constructed creatures.

She had asked him what constructed creatures were, but he had told her there was no time, that she would have to read the book later on.

But I can’t leave until midnight, she protested.

You can’t, but we have fifteen minutes until your mother starts to become afraid from you, and if she finds you here, she will take all these things from you and stop you from going.

Grace hadn’t wasted time asking how he knew this.

She slid the pack out from under the desk, and then swung it up onto her back. It was uncomfortably heavy until she clipped the waist-strap and adjusted the shoulders, and then it was only weighty. She remembered carrying it on the school’s hiking expedition to the Rockies, and how quickly she had become tired. She was almost as nervous about the physical demands of the first part of her journey as she was about the rescue.

She looped her coat over her arm, and stuffed the items she would need first into her trouser-pockets. She almost walked out without the staff which she’d hidden in her cupboard, despite her inward recitation of all those things she would need. But with a swoop of her stomach it came back to her and she paced over to retrieve it.

Powdered silver.

She had taken the velvet bag from him in silence, remembering the woman in the tent and the clouds of silver dust she had scattered. Grace had seen once use for this already, and she felt certain she would read more in the book.

She paused at her bedroom door before she opened it, and paused again on the landing. She could hear two sets of breathing past the half-open door to her parents’ room, one her Dad’s snorting half-snores, the other her mother’s steady inhalations and exhalations. She was asleep, at last, exhausted by her night without rest. Grace could leave.

She paused for a third and final time just inside the door to Maggie’s room where she could see her sister’s huddled form in her bed. Maggie had been white-faced and silent all day, no longer crying, even. Just shell-shocked and frightened.

Grace had returned from kick-boxing to find her drawing in her room, her sketchbook in front of her on the bed. Before she went to shower, Grace went in to sit beside her sister. Maggie had glanced up at her, and it had twisted her up inside to see that pleading face with the huge eyes, and knowing she couldn’t do anything to help right now; worse still, she was going to make Maggie and Ma and Dad even more afraid by vanishing too.

The feeling had only grown worse when she’d looked down at Maggie’s sketchbook and seen a vivid, lifelike portrait of Benjamin, pretending to smoke as he swaggered along the sidewalk. Maggie was filling herself in alongside him, bent double with laughter.

Grace hadn’t known what to say, but in the end, she’d told her it was a good drawing, and squeezed her tightly, before going to take her shower. Maggie hadn’t said a word.

She wished she’d spoken to her again that day, to reassure her in some way. Not that she could explain to her any more than she could to Dad. But it was too late for that. All she could do was leave her the gold hairclip Maggie so often asked to borrow, with a note clipped in its claws which attempted to explain.

A true-seer.

            Mr. Fredrickson had handed her a tarnished silver chain with a small, dull stone set into it.

            “This will act as your eyes, when your own are being deceived by magics. Don’t give it away, and don’t let anyone see it if you can avoid it. It just needs to be in contact with your skin.”

            She had thought for a moment, and then rolled up her trouser-leg and fastened the chain onto her ankle, before pulling her sock up over it and rolling the trousers down. Once she retrieved her boots from their place by the fire and put them back on, it would be hidden three times over. Mr. Fredrickson nodded in approval.

            Grace gently touched Maggie’s hair and then walked away, padding in her thick hiking socks down the stairs and into the kitchen. The other note went there, where her parents would look when they found her bed empty. She read it again as she put it down, even though she was desperate to get out of the hot house and into the night air.

 

            Ma & Dad,

I’m sorry if my going makes things worse for you, but I know I can get him back.

Love you,

Gracie

Xx

 

It might her eyes water to think of them reading it, so she turned away and thought instead about her inventory while she put her boots on.

A knife with a forged steel blade.

Grace had suggested her pen-knife, but Mr. Fredrickson had pressed a gleaming little dagger with its own sheath into her hand and explained how to attach it to her hip.

You may need to defend yourself against things which won’t be harmed in any other way. But it won’t work on everything. You’ll need to know that book as if by heart to tell the difference and sometimes you’ll still have to improvise.

The boots on, she went to the door, picking up her coat as she gently turned the key. It was Ma’s large, clunky set of keys with her seven or eight key-charms attached to the bunch and several off-shoot smaller rings. Grace used her left hand to quiet the jingling metal, her heart thumping in her mouth as she listened for any sound as soon as she heard the lock click open.

There was silence from upstairs, and for a moment Grace was almost disappointed. It was shameful, but there was still part of her that wanted Ma to come and order her back to bed so that she could go on being a teenager and not a hero, or at least a heroine.

Instead, she opened the door and walked out into the night.

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