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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5. The Untold Secret

Grace’s mother offered no word of explanation until after midnight, when Maggie finally fell asleep curled on top of Dad, who dozed off shortly afterwards. The day had become a nightmare of frantic activity contrasted with long periods of waiting, and the police had left a Lieutenant with them until nightfall, when he had gone off-duty with a supportive smile.

The two of them sat staring at the fire Dad had lit for a while, with questions welling up in Grace which she was half frightened of asking. But in the end, her curiosity bubbled up too high for even her fear to keep down, and she whispered, “Who was that man, Ma? You know him, don’t you?”

Ma looked over at her, startled, as if she had forgotten that Grace was there, and then she sighed and looked down at her hands, where she was turning one of her rings round and round on her finger.

“I used to know him. I haven’t seen him since I came here.”

“He’s Russian?”

Grace saw the way her mother half-smiled, and it turned something she had been suspecting into a frightening truth.

“He isn’t, and you aren’t, either. Are you, Ma?”

Ma looked at her again, a long look from her tired eyes, and then shook her head.

“No.”

“Where?”

Ma sighed. “It’s hard to explain when it’s somewhere you won’t have heard of. We just called it The Kingdom, or The Walled Kingdom, but it’s part of an entire world which we never bothered to name.”

Grace’s heart stepped up, until it was pounding in her chest, but not with disbelief. “Is it... a long way away?”

“Sometimes.” Ma looked back at her hands. “It’s close to us sometimes, in winter, and at night. Closest still in the moonlight. We share a moon with that world, and the fabric between us is so thin that it sometimes vanishes and lets people cross. Most of them cross by accident, but some come with a purpose.”

Grace watched her mother as she turned the ring again and again on her finger. “Why did you come?”

“I fled to save you,” Ma said quietly. “You have to understand – everything is different there. Here, things are ruled by what is not possible. That’s how physics work, you know; by its limitations. There are rules and laws for everything, from gravity to heat exchange. It took me a long time to get used to them.”

“But not there?”

“Not there. What is possible is... stronger. Possibility itself is a force that certain people can manipulate.”

Grace leaned forward in her chair. “What do you mean?”

“They’re like wizards. They can do things which other people can’t, but it’s not magic, it’s just a world with fewer rules. Some people are born with particular – well, they’re like muscles. They’re part of the body. And those people – the riezehn - can work possibility to do things you would call magic.”

“Like the light-show,” Grace said, the sick feeling growing and twisting around something which was a little bit like excitement.

“Like the light-show,” her mother agreed. “And you made the globe shine because you’re one of them, as I knew you would be.”

“So why did you run?”

Maggie, on Dad’s lap, stirred and murmured slightly, and Grace reached over to stroke her hair gently until she fell asleep again, watching the pale face with its blotchy skin under the eyes and feeling a desperate need to comfort Benjamin in the same way. Was he alone? Was he cold? Was he frightened?

“Because the riezehn aren’t free,” Ma whispered. “Boy-children are snatched the moment they show any talent, and taken to the tower where the Queen rules, as she’s done for centuries. The boys are kept in a form of trance, and magically linked to make them more powerful. The Queen uses that power to keep her fantastical palace working.”

There was a catch in her voice, and when Grace looked over, she saw that Ma was crying; big, shining tears rolling down her face.

“I can’t bear it, Grace. I can’t bear for him to be kept like that, enslaved, barely aware of what’s going on around him until he’s all but mad from it.”

“Is that why they took him?” Grace asked, horrified. “Because he had the coin which meant he was magical?”

Ma rubbed at her eyes. “I’m not sure. I think that’s what they will do, because Ruidic won’t have asked for him to be tested if he hadn’t had some talent. Revenal can see it, though not how strong it is, which is all that saved me.”

“What saved you?” Grace leaned forwards again. “I thought it was just the boys they snatched?”

“I said it was the boys they kept in captivity,” Ma told her. “Girls can’t be linked, so anyone weak in possibility would be ignored. They didn’t pose any kind of threat. But the strong ones, the ones born with a real raging power – they vanished.”

Grace nodded, slowly. “You were one of them. You were powerful.”

“Yes,” Ma said, tiredly. “And I hid it in order to survive. I pretended to struggle to tip a cup over or blow out a candle, when I could have lifted the whole of that wretched tower up and blown it apart if I’d wanted to. If they hadn’t stopped me, of course.”

There was a silence, and then Grace said, “You have to go after him.”

“I can’t,” Ma said, and there was heartbreak in her voice. “I can’t, because that’s what Ruidic wants me to do, and he’ll be waiting. He’ll never let me out. I won’t even reach Benjamin before he stops me. I’ll die, and that will mean there’s no-one to protect you and Maggie, Grace. For as long as that world brushes up against ours, you will be in danger.”

Grace felt cold. She thought about Benjamin again, and how he’d tried to hide his fear when he climbed up onto the stage, and she wanted to slap her mother.

“You can’t leave him there,” she said.

“What can I do?” Ma asked, in a whisper which was still a wail. “What can I do when going after him will put you and Maggie in danger? I need to take you both away, somewhere he won’t think to look, at least not for a long time.”

“But it’s Benjamin-”

“Do you think I don’t care?” Ma was crying again, and she looked at Grace with so much pain and guilt that it made her feel sick again. “Do you think I can stand to think of my little boy, who isn’t nearly as brave as he pretends, on his own with them? Scared, and in danger, in a world he doesn’t understand? But I have to look after you.”

“You can’t,” Grace said, forgetting to whisper, and Dad jerked upright.

“What time is it?” he asked, thickly.

“Nearly one,” Ma said, rubbing at her eyes again.

“I should get Maggie to bed,” he said, and shifted her on his lap so that he could stand. Once on his feet, he swayed slightly, and then walked over to the door and disappeared out into the hallway.

Grace listened to him climbing the stairs heavily, and looked back at Ma. “But Maggie might be all right. If she isn’t riezehn, then they wouldn’t want to take her, would they?”

“She is, Grace.” Ma let out a breath. “I can see it burning in her in the moonlight, just as I can see it burning in you and Benjamin. It’s like a living fire, and it’s in all of you. I can see it, just like he can.”

Grace sat still, even though her body was screaming at her to move, to get up and go after her brother.

“But there is a way to get there, isn’t there? I could find a way.”

“No!”

Ma sat up so quickly that Grace flinched.

“Why not?”

“You don’t know anything about that world. You’d be picked up within days, and unlike me, you wouldn’t know how to pretend. You held that orb of Ruidic’s, didn’t you? You made it shine blindingly without knowing how, because you can’t control an ability that only comes to you in bright moonlight. And he knows now, Gracie. He knows what you are.”

Grace stared back at her, her own eyes starting to fill with tears.

“Teach me how to control it, Ma,” she said.

“It takes years, Grace.”

“Please-”

The sound of Dad’s footsteps on the stairs again silenced Ma. She looked anxiously at Grace, and then down at her hands again, where she began to twist the ring round and round again.

When Dad returned, he glanced at Grace, and at Ma, and then came and sat with Grace on the sofa.

“You ok, Gracie?”

“I want to go and look for him,” Grace said, her mouth twisting as she tried not to cry. “Tell Ma to let me go and search. I could find him-”

“You can’t go in the dark,” Dad said, immediately and firmly. “But – I’m going back out again anyway. I’ll look, I promise, Grace. I’m not going to stop looking.”

Grace let him hug her, and then he stood and started to collect his hat and gloves, despite his weariness. He had been out searching for fourteen or fifteen hours, and he was still going again.

“Let me come,” Grace said, getting up and picking her own coat up. “I’ll come with you and help. Keep you company.”

Dad hesitated, but he was tired enough to give in. “All right. Come with me. But we’d better bring cookies and coffee or you’ll be dead on your feet within an hour.”

Grace hurried through to the kitchen and filled the kettle while he dug cookies out of the cupboard, and then a flask. She felt dizzy with the thought that they wouldn’t find anything, but she couldn’t bear to stay here with her mother, who was going to do nothing. Even if Grace understood why, she couldn’t accept it.

She knew that it was up to her now, and that she would have to find a way of travelling to that other world. If Ma knew how, then Grace would find out too. She had to.


 

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