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.


2. The Light Show

Outside in the cold air, she breathed a few times, and started to feel more awake. As the tiredness left her, so did some of her worry. She put her coat back on, but hearing applause from somewhere close by, she thought about Maggie and Benjamin again, and made her way past the fountain, stuffing her gloves into her pockets as she went.

The row she found herself on was dazzlingly bright, every stall covered in fairy lights or hung with lanterns. She saw that one of them sold paper lanterns which had bright bulbs in them, but the others were decorations on tents which were for shows or games or which had signs like “Hall of Mirrors” and “Lover’s Walk.” There was a strong smell of cinnamon and a sound to it, too, the unique mix of a grind-organ and a snake-charmer’s pipe with the shouts and applause of dozens of people.

There was a crowd here, not just a few scattered groups. Many of them were children, and Grace wondered if she would see some of her class-mates if she looked more closely. She kept her head low as she walked and avoided meeting too many gazes, much as she usually did, but this time because she was still aware of an urgent need to find her family.

As she moved, she became aware that she was entering a thicker press of people, and after a little determination, she broke through a knot of older teenagers and saw a little stage half-covered in smoke. It was simple, and open to the air. Aside from the smoke, it had only a large box to the left-hand side.

In the centre of it stood a man who was probably a few years younger than Dad, wearing a billowing shirt made up of stripes of dark red and gold. His hair was long and honey-blond and tied back loosely behind his head, giving him the look of a swordsman or maybe a pirate from a bygone age.

As Grace watched, he held up his hand, and into it flew a cluster of purple globes of light, which lighted on each of his fingers and then started to spin around until they became a seamless circle. And then he clicked the fingers of his other hand and a sparkling mist of moving orange lights sprang into life.

He moved his hands together until the mist and the spinning disc were touching, and then they flowed over and around each other until he had made a spinning crown of orange flecked with points of purple, which he lifted and then lowered onto his head.

She tried to scan the crowd for Dad’s mop of hair, but found herself watching instead, entranced. She knew there were tricks to all these shows, but she couldn’t see what they were here.

It was always frustrating to Grace that she could see through trickery so easily. Her want for things to be true couldn’t stop her from understanding the tricks and catches behind everything, whether it was an illusionist or a card-trickster. And all those fortune-tellers, too... But when she thought of the woman in the tent, and the strange feeling which had overcome her, she found it difficult to put her in the same category as the others. She hadn’t let Grace fill in any gaps, she had simply told her things, and though none of it was factual, it was at least possible.

Here, too, she couldn’t see any catches at all. Her eyes strained to catch sight  of lasers used to create those points of light, and she squinted to see whether the smoke went higher up than they were being led to believe and was being used to bounce light off. She had seen light shows use that trick before. But the man himself was hazy only up to his knees, and then showed up sharply in the spotlight which was on him. So there was no smoke there. What, then? What was there to create those lights?

The crown became a sword, and then lightning, and then a dazzling ray of sunlight. Light of every colour and shape was thrown around the stage by the man, and after a few minutes by a little blonde girl of about the twins’ age who came to assist him. He made rings of light which looked solid and moved them up and down over and around her, and then flung one out into the front row of the audience to sink over a startled spectator.

Finally, the stage dimmed down and the full show finished, to applause and excited comment between spectators. But the man held out his hands to hush the crowds.

“Wielding light in this way is a gift, one which some are born to and others will never possess,” he told them, in a voice with a faint accent which reminded Grace ever so slightly of her Irish cousins. “If any of you has ever felt an affinity towards such things, why not step forwards and give it a try?”

A little shoving down near the front produced a flushed lad who was probably eighteen or nineteen and looked like he had been standing too close to the fire-breather. Despite his sheeny red face, he still had a thick hat with ear-flaps perched on his head, and looked a little silly, Grace thought.

“And what is your name?”

“Daniel,” the boy said, to applause from his friends.

Grace used the slight thinning of the crowd now that the real show was over as an opportunity to press closer to the stage. She was certain Benjamin would be as close to the front as he could get and have dragged Dad and Maggie with him. Besides that, with someone less practiced getting involved, she might be able to see the trick behind all this. Though she knew there was a chance the lad was a plant, who was there to pretend, and really was just as much part of the circus as the man and the girl.

The man on the stage tightened his hair in its ponytail, as if preparing for something, and then went to the side of the stage where a large chest had sat throughout the show. At least, Grace thought it had. It might have come and gone dozens of times whilst she had stared intently at the performers.

“Well, Daniel. Here is your test,” he said, and lifted out a ball which was only a little bigger than his two hands together, but which pulsed and glowed and swirled as if it had something alive inside it.

She could hear the hush which came over the crowd, and feel goosebumps rising on her skin. It made her begin to be a little nervous, because there was no reason to be afraid of a glass globe, even if it had strange and beautiful lights and colours contained in it. It could easily be a projection from something inside it, or a simple bulb with gases trapped in there with it.

Very slowly, because he was a true showman, the performer stood and walked towards the red-faced lad.

“You just have to make it glow,” he told him, “like I’m doing now. Nothing to it.”

The lad looked a little bit uneasy too, and Grace saw him glance down at the crowd two or three times, probably at his friends.

“What happens if I do?”

The man smiled brilliantly. “A new life will open up to you, beginning with the gift of a pure gold piece.” He took one hand away from the globe and flicked a coin into the air from nowhere. It glittered as it span through the air and landed back in his hand before disappearing again. “If you can’t, then nothing will happen at all.”

The lad glanced downwards again, and a muted cheer sounded from somewhere over where his friends had been. It was only a short cheer, and it faded quickly, but it was enough to make the lad reach out and take the globe.

Nothing happened as his hands closed over it, but the moment the performer took his own away, the lights and colours died to nothing.

The lad was left blinking at a transparent glass sphere, which looked as though it had never held anything more than air.

A murmur from the crowd, and then a little laughter and half-hearted applause. The long-haired man smiled, a little cruelly, Grace thought, and then lifted the globe away, when it became a living, glowing thing again.

“Not many have the gift,” he said, “but I admire your courage.”

He gestured dismissively with his hand, and the young lad climbed back down, his face redder than ever.

            “Will anyone else try it?”

            A girl a little younger than Grace stepped up, and had clearly been poised waiting to have a try.

“Alice,” she told the man, and reached out eagerly. But again, the globe stopped glowing immediately the man’s hands left it, and the girl looked as though she might cry when the man snatched it away again.

            “It’s a trick,” she said, before he could carry on. “It only works because you have something hidden in your hands to make it work.”

            The man smiled again, and it was just a little bit mocking. “I’m afraid it isn’t a trick. It’s a gift,” he told her. “Often when I put on a show, there will be nobody, not a man or a woman or a child, who can light the globe. But tonight, I can feel something...”

            He strolled along the front of the stage, his eyes searching the crowd, and before he stopped and said “You,” Grace felt a rush of danger.

            She didn’t need to see who it was he had picked out. She dropped her empty paper cup and was already pushing her way towards the front of the stage as Benjamin staggered to his feet on top of it, aided by his father.

            “You’d like to try?” the performer was asking, and there was an eagerness in his voice which sent Grace’s heart thudding harder.

            “Yes,” Benjamin said, drawing himself up to his full eight-year-old height and beaming at the crowd without a trace of worry.

            Grace could hear Maggie’s voice cheering him on as she reached the edge of the stage off to the side.

            “And what’s your name?”

            “Benjamin,” he told the long-haired man proudly, and held out his hand for the globe.

            “Wait!” Grace shouted into the quiet laughter her brother had caused, and it turned into a hush as they all turned to look at her, the long-haired man’s look the sharpest and the most delighted.

            She felt herself blush a deep scarlet, and was struggling to tell the difference between the fear she had felt before and the horror of having everyone look at her. She thought about turning and walking back the way she had come, but the man on the stage had seen her. He wasn’t going to let her go.

            “Would you prefer to do it yourself?” he asked her, spinning the globe in one hand. The deep blues and greens were reflected in his eyes, making them seem like they were writhing about too.

            She stood rooted to the spot, certain that she had to stop Benjamin from touching it somehow, but almost as terrified of climbing up there herself. At least her brother enjoyed an audience.

            She looked over at him, and he was scowling fiercely at her, but she knew that scowl, and the way he used it to pretend that he wasn’t scared, and that made up his mind. He hadn’t stepped up because he was unafraid; he had stepped up because he was terrified. Well if her brother could face up to his fear, so could she.

            “Yes,” she said, and pushed herself up with her hands until her knees could find the edge of the smooth black stage, and then she was standing up, feeling almost weightless under the pressure of several hundred pairs of eyes. “Let me try it.”

            Benjamin folded his arms, and pouted, but didn’t try to take the globe instead, and she reached out a hand to pat him on his wildly curling hair. She had been right. He was afraid, just like she was.

“I wouldn’t want to ignore someone whose calling is that strong,” the long-haired man told her, and she turned to look at him.

Up close he was stranger and more spectacular than he had been from a distance. She saw that his blond hair had light running through it, too subtle to see from far away. Why would he create an effect which his audience wouldn’t notice? His skin looked so smooth and gold that it could have been made of metal, and the more she looked at the blue and green eyes, the more she started to think that the colours were twisting and moving all on their own, without needing to reflect the movements in the globe.

“And what’s your name, my dear?” he asked her softly.

She didn’t want to tell him, but there were all those people watching. She whispered back, “Grace.”

“Well, Grace. Here’s your chance at a better life.”

He held out his hand, and she pushed Benjamin back towards their father before she reached out to touch it.

It was different this time. The moment her skin came into contact with the glass, or whatever the smooth surface was made of, she felt a tug and then a rush inside her and the globe was glowing a blinding, piercing white. She wanted to pull her hand away, but seemed to be stuck to it, and the intensity brightened and brightened.

She saw the long-haired man throw a hand over his eyes, and to her side her father duck his head and the twins’ too, and then the light was so bright that she couldn’t see anything at all.

She thought the light must have blinded her, but there was a slipping feeling under her fingers, and the rushing feeling was gone. She blinked and blinked in the dazzling after-image of that light, until she could see the man in front of her, with the globe held carefully away from her and a very small smile on his face.

“Well, my dear,” he told her, taking one hand away from the sphere to flick a golden object into the air. “You have earned it,” he told her, as the coin span in space, and then fell to the ground with a chiming thud.

Then, finally, there was applause. They thought they’d been tricked, and they loved it, as she had always done.

“Will her life change?” she heard Maggie call from the ground.

“If she wants it to,” the man replied, and then made his way back over to the chest at the edge of the stage. Grace watched his back as he bundled the globe up again, and then turned to face the audience.

“That concludes tonight’s show,” he told them, and there were groans and boos, but then more applause. Most of them knew it was over, really. The little girl came out from the wings to curtsey while he bowed, and Grace started to climb slowly down to the ground, her legs and arms a little bit heavy.

She tried to ignore the coin where it lay on the stage, and the dullness that seemed to have fallen over everything now that the bright patches had faded away from her vision. Her Dad grinned at her and whispered, “You’re braver than you think, you know.”

Grace nodded at him, and took Benjamin’s hand to lead him away.

“Grace,” she heard, and turned back to where the long-haired man was holding the coin between his first two fingers. “Don’t forget your prize.”

He threw it again, and this time Benjamin reached up and caught it, and then gaze a whoop.

“That was my left hand. Did you see that?”

“It was great,” Grace told him, and then tugged at his hand, wanting to get away from those strange eyes and even from the fair, which had been an entrancing dream up until a few minutes ago.

She heard Dad trying to coax Maggie along behind, while she asked for candyfloss, and then a stuffed bear, and then a chocolate spiral on a stick. Eventually, even her Dad lost patience.

“I think you’ve eaten enough, Mags,” he said firmly. “Your mother will be angry enough with us for being late, without you refusing to eat your dinner.”

Grace felt a squeeze in her stomach, only now really thinking about how worried Ma would be. She glanced over at her Dad, and said, “Maybe we shouldn’t tell her about the light show, huh?”

He looked gratefully back at her. “Just what I was thinking.”

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