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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10. The Cold Lands

All she could see was the stars, a million scattered flares of light, but each one so much brighter than any star she’d ever seen, its light stretching further out into the sky, until there was almost no black in between. They winked and glittered like the lights which had surrounded her, as much a living, breathing world up there as the town she had left behind.

            Glowing between them were nebulous paths through the night, some close to her, others distant, and all of them crossing over each other in many various colours. They looked almost like the path of the milky way on a clear night, except for the gorgeous colours, but Grace knew what these were from the book.

“The travelling winds,” she said to herself, and she grinned at them like an idiot, her eyes watering with happiness. They had seemed such a work of fantasy when she had read the book, a network of winds enchanted so that they picked travellers up and carried them from city to city, or from place to place within each city. And yet there they were, shining away in the night so proudly.

As her neck began to ache, she realised that she was standing inches deep in snow, her head tipped back to look upwards, and slowly she tore her eyes away from the sky and looked at the land she had arrived in.

            It should have been a familiar scene; the bare trees and the snow weren’t so very different from the ones in the park. And yet everything was different. Every tree was dusted with ice, which caught the light of the moon and threw it back, glimmering almost as brightly as the stars. Beneath her feet, the perfect, undisturbed snow was a gleaming river of white so bright it could almost have been daylight.

            For a moment she thought she heard music made up of faintly chiming bells, and turned her head. The movement brought with it a rush of cold air spiced with cinnamon, only for sound and smell to fade out together and leave her wondering if she had imagined both.

            She could have stood there for hours, gazing around at it all, but she remembered Mr. Fredrickson’s words.

            First, find yourself, and then find shelter.

            She slid the pack off her shoulders and let it sink a few inches into the snow. Unzipping the top flap, she pulled out the book where she had stowed it in a sealed plastic bag, heeding the bookseller’s warning.

            More than anything else, you will need the book. To have read it is not enough. You will need the map, and possibility-weaving is complex. In an ideal world you would have years to master it. Instead, you will have to refer to the book as you need it.

            She took it out of the bag and opened the very front, where a detailed map had been printed on the cover and the first page. She touched a finger to it, and jumped as a tiny point glowed into being near it.

            She smiled at that point, grateful to the book for showing her where she was without even having to be asked. She remembered how Mr. Fredrickson would talk about books as if they were living creatures, and wondered if she should be thanking the tome out loud.

            Feeling slightly foolish, she whispered, “Thank you,” and then peered at the map around the glowing point of light.

            She was south and west of the Fragile Tower and its surrounding city, which was called Kryzna. She should have found out how to pronounce it, she realised, but she supposed she would find out in time.

She would be travelling across the largely uninhabited lands between the cities of the kingdom. It was not a difficult place to navigate, as Mr. Fredrickson had pointed out. The Walled Kingdom was a perfect circle, its wall a stretch of a thousand miles of enchanted stone. The Fragile Tower was at its centre, of course, the spindle of what looked like a clock from above, the twelve cities spaced out around its perimeter and the great river running almost due north to south through its centre.

            Thirteen cities in all, each with thousands of inhabitants. Without the bookseller and Ma to guide her, even if she had made it this far, she couldn’t have hoped to find Benjamin in months of searching. But she knew that her path led straight to the tower and the Queen who lived within its walls.

            Examining the scale on the map, she saw that she was some thirteen miles from the city. The thought made her weary, and eager as she was to begin finding her brother, she knew that she would need to sleep before trudging through the snow. The book and the bookseller had both warned her, too, to avoid travelling at night, when the creatures of pure cold were out in force.

            The wall was built to keep out wielders of Cold Magic and their creatures, the bookseller had told her. Two thousand years ago, it was built, perhaps more. The King gave up the rest of the Cold Lands and allowed them to become overrun, confident that his walls would keep everything out. But it takes more than stone to keep out the Cold.

            She knew more from the book, and it had made her feel sad just to read it. Little by little, the Cold had begun to make its way within the walls. Wielders of possibility from without made their way inside, and those within were corrupted. The Kings and Queens who succeeded each other had been self-indulgent and obsessed with their renown, each one binding more and more riezehn together to make palaces and cities, each more elaborate than the last.

            And now the kingdom itself was no longer a safe place. Only within the Fragile Tower could any of its people be certain of escaping the Cold.

            She looked over towards where she knew the tower to be, her eyes following the trail of one of the purple travelling winds. She thought she could make out a light in the distance, just above the trees. She had something to follow, at least. But she closed the book, and turned her mind towards finding shelter.

            Her eyes scanned the trees a short way off. Best to go roughly in the right direction, she thought, and best to be hidden from plain sight. Standing here, she was as obvious as a bright light on a dim day. The thought made her itch across her shoulders, and she turned quickly to look behind her at the empty wood, only now seeing how many shadows there were between the clusters of trees which stood a little way off on each side.

            She began to trudge through the snow, the going as hard as she had thought it would be. Each step had to be unnaturally high to clear the four or five inches of snow, and soon, she was breathing hard. Walking was made more difficult, and more dizzying, by the urge to keep looking all around her, and when she looked back along the line of her footsteps after half a mile, she saw that they weaved and swayed like a drunkard making their way along a road.

A few paces further on, she was in the shadow of the trees, and behind three of them growing close together she found a dip in the ground which was hidden on three sides. Sighing, she slid the pack off her back, and unzipped her coat for a moment to let some air in. She was sweating beneath its fur. She would have to set off wearing less in the morning. She knew from Ma’s enforced hikes and survival lessons that overheating and sweating could kill you; you would cool down too far once you had to stop, and with clothes that were soaked through there would be no way of warming yourself up again.

She thought back to the bookseller’s list.

Draw out your place, and then the symbol of turning.

            She put the point of the staff into the snow and began to walk in a large circle around her pack, the very action increasing her nerves. She knew why she was doing this. Mr. Fredrickson had impressed on her how many creatures there were here that might look to hunt her, and the book itself had added its own vivid descriptions. She was almost running by the time she came close to where she had started, desperate to finish the circle and the spell that would go with it.

She joined the ends up as neatly as she could, so that she was standing within a circle a little over ten feet across in the snow, just within the limits of the dip in the ground, her footprints tracking a messy furrow alongside it.  The turning spell she was ready for. That second symbol was as clearly etched in her memory as the symbol she had used to travel here. She shoved her pack away from the centre of the dip, and drew the jagged lines on the ground beneath her feet, smiling in spite of herself at the way the tiny points gleamed within the complex shape.

The tiny glimmering points spread outwards until they met her circle, and there they seemed to multiply so that the whole circle was alive with them. For a moment they were bright and cheering, before they faded to a subtle gleam.

She breathed out then, trusting that nothing of evil intent could approach her now, as the bookseller had promised.

But it is not complete, that protection, he had added. You will need to hide yourself from those that approach without a specific intention, because those creatures and people can still turn on you.

With those words ringing in her mind, she opened the book once again, and flicked through until she came to the thirteen symbols.

Every spell the riezehn cast is based on one of those thirteen, Mr. Frederickson’s voice echoed in her mind. They are modified and expanded upon, and as you progress, you will need to do little other than picture them. But they lie beneath all the power in the kingdom, ever since it was first brought into existence.

She would need the symbol of concealment, a circle scratched through with a jagged line, and one of protection. Quickly, with hands that shook slightly, she drew them on the ground and watched as a warm red light pulsed out to join the white light of the circle. And then, finally, she began to unpack her tent from the rucksack.

For a moment, the strangeness of it all was too much for her and she stopped putting the tent up and stood looking around, searching for something to tell her that this was all a dream or a trick. Was she really, truly, standing in another world?

She remembered the disappointment of travelling to other countries, where she had stepped off the plane expecting the sunlight and the greenery to be richer and more exotic, and instead finding that a hot day in New York was much like a hot day in Egypt; and that a cold day in either was pretty much the same too.

But this was really, truly different, from the faint sounds on the air to every object her gaze fell on. Everything she saw told her again and again that she truly was in a different world, and it made her feel slightly sick and dizzy to keep finding those strange ribbons of light in the air between the glittering branches, and to see the gleaming magic of the spell she had worked. It was wonderful, but it was also more than a little terrifying.

After a few deep breaths, the sickness receded and in its place was another surge of the pure, singing happiness she had experienced when looking up at the stars. It was a beautiful place, and she had power here. She had significance.

With that thought, she started setting up camp again, realising that she had chilled a great deal just in standing still for a few minutes. Thank goodness she had brought the stove with her, she thought, and hoped that the gas cylinder lasted her until she found civilisation; and until she could get Benjamin back out, of course, she added to herself.

Immersed in the task, she didn’t see the figure which slipped out from behind one of the frozen trees and slid silently away through the shadows of the forest.

 

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