The Fragile Tower is the first book in Gytha’s no. 1 hit fantasy series, and book 1 is available on Wattpad for the next 3 months. Grace is a shy fifteen-year-old girl living in New York State. She suddenly finds herself having to travel to another world in order to rescue her brother after he is snatched away by the workers at a mysterious fair.
The day when all Ma’s worst fears came true was dazzlingly bright and beautiful. It had snowed heavily during the night, and when Grace went to collect the post, she trod over perfect, crisp whiteness. She squinted out at their quiet street and thought that it had changed somehow with this first proper fall of snow. It seemed to promise something, and Grace felt a faint stirring of excitement in herself at the thought of change.
The feeling was cemented when she opened the post box and found a package addressed to her, which could only be her new tarot reading book. She hadn’t thought it would be here until next week. It had to be a good omen.
Later, Grace thought that she should have understood the peculiar feeling. She should have read all the little differences today and realised that something terrible was going to happen before anything wonderful had a chance. But how could she have known, really?
Ma had woken at five thirty to reorganise her portfolio, and she was on her third cup of coffee by the time Grace returned inside. She was bent over the kitchen table with the cup in her left hand, making herself frantic notes and sketches with her right. But at least she was dressed now, and she looked elegant and also a little quirky in her slash-necked black top and her big silver necklace, her hair piled up into a mound of curls.
Grace had always been proud of Ma’s beauty, particularly of her thick, shiny black hair and her huge eyes. But mixed with that was a little bit of envy she was ashamed of. Grace felt like her brown hair was dull and uninteresting in comparison, and her blue-green eyes were a normal sort of shape and size. Where Ma was exotic and striking, Grace was just average-looking.
The only thing she really seemed to have picked up from Ma was her height, and after a sudden rush of growth over summer, she was now an inch taller than Ma’s five-foot-nine, and although accompanying Dad on hikes and her kick-boxing training meant she was fitter than most of her class, she wasn’t graceful like Ma. In fact, she generally felt about as far from living up to her name as it was possible to be.
Ma looked up as Grace stamped her boots on the mat.
“Make sure Benjamin wears enough. And tell Dad to bring a spare coat in case he loses it.”
“Sure.” Grace dropped the post onto the kitchen table, then went to the kettle and clicked it on again. She smiled slightly at a screech and running steps coming from upstairs. She remembered when Dad had first met Ma and moved in, and the unbelievable excitement of having someone to chase around with each morning. It had been such a contrast to the way Ma worried about whether the roads were icy that morning or whether Grace might try to walk home with one of her friends.
She almost missed the silliness of those mornings, even though it had been Grace who sombrely told Dad she was too old for that sort of thing once she hit nine and the twins had started joining in too.
She looked at Ma, whose head was bowed over her sketchpad, and as usual felt a little bit like a traitor for wanting to have more fun. She knew how hard it had been for Ma, bringing a child up alone in a foreign country. For years it had been the two of them against the world. She understood the way her mother worried more than the twins ever could; more than Dad did, even.
“What time are you leaving?” she asked.
“Ten minutes,” Ma said, glancing up at the clock and then down again. It was only half past six.
It was a four hour drive from High Peaks town to New York City, and that was in good conditions. With the snow, it might be almost five. Ma’s all-important meeting with the Diplomat Hotel wasn’t until one, and she thought it would be no more than an hour since they had already seen and approved Ma’s plans for the sculpture she was going to create. But for that one hour, she would be on the road for most of the day.
Grace leaned over for a moment to look at the sketches, but couldn’t really find any interest in them. Ma had flung sketchpads, paints and crayons at Grace from an early age in the hope that she would take after her. But Grace had resisted. She found drawing both frustrating and uninteresting, and painting was almost as bad. She only really loved reading, preferably about mystery or prophecy. That and practising her many methods of divining the future.
In fact, of the three of them, it was only Maggie who seemed to show any particular artistic talent. She loved to buy coloured crayons and tissue paper and make strange creations. They always had names, these creatures or places, but none that Grace had ever heard of. Maggie would always insist they were real, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
“I’ll be back by seven,” Ma said, while she wrote and sketched by turns, and it was the fifth or sixth time she had told Grace this. “The twins might be hungry, so do them a snack or something. And if Dad isn’t at the school by five, call him.”
“Yes, Ma.” The kettle clicked off, and Grace pulled out a mug and the powdered hot chocolate from the cupboard.
“Is your phone charged?”
“Yes.” Grace poured her drink, and picked up her package to open it. But as she was unpeeling the triple layer of tape over the flap, Maggie and Benjamin thundered down the stairs. Both were flushed from running and laughing, and still wearing pyjamas. Maggie’s curly red hair was in a great fuzz around her head as it always was before she brushed it.
“Aren’t you two dressed yet?” Ma asked, and from the sound of her voice, they might have done something illegal.
“We’ve got time, Ma,” Grace told her. “I’ll sort them out once you’ve gone.”
“I’m too hungry to get dressed, anyway,” Benjamin told her, and started opening cupboards.
“Where’s your Dad?” Ma asked, closing her notebook with evident exasperation.
“Taking a shower,” Maggie said. “He did too much running.”
Ma sighed, and then rushed to stop Benjamin from pulling out two cereal boxes. “What are you looking for?”
“Chocolate pop-tarts,” he told her. “You said you bought some.”
“I did, I just didn’t put them in here.”
Ma reached up to the cupboard over the sink and pulled out a box.
“Am I toasting it?”
“Them. I’m not just having one. I’m starving.”
Benjamin took a foil packet and went to sit at the table while Maggie opened Ma’s notebook and started to flick through.
“Maggie,” Grace muttered, and when her sister looked up at her, shook her head, silently. But Ma had already seen, and snatched the notebook off her.
“Don’t fiddle! I need that.”
“I was just looking at your drawings,” Maggie said, and fixed Ma with one of her wide-eyed gazes. Maggie had the most devious way of coming across like a suffering orphan when it suited her, and the expression worked on almost everyone. Almost everyone didn’t usually include Ma.
“Sit down and eat your breakfast,” Ma told her, sternly. “You can look at the drawings later, when I get back.”
Maggie went to sit next to Benjamin, but then whined, “I don’t want pop-tarts.”
Ma started to cram her notebook into her handbag, and snapped at her, “Well what do you want, then?”
“I’ll get them,” Grace said, and poured Maggie a bowl before adding milk and a spoon.
Ma was muttering something which sounded like it probably started with “If you were growing up in Russia…” Grace wondered whether a Russian childhood could really be as tough as Ma frequently made out, but it was hard to tell, since this was the only reference she ever made to her home country.
Maggie grabbed the bowl of cereal off her and started to shove spoonfuls into her mouth.
“Aren’t you supposed to say something?” Grace asked her, and prodded her in the side.
“Mmm, they’re delicious,” Maggie said, and Grace decided that would have to do. She picked up her hot chocolate, the newspaper and her package and retreated to the living room.
Grace opened the package and slid the sheer hardback book out. She stroked the raised gold lettering, The Greater Tarot, and then opened it. She would read it properly later but for now she scanned the complex arrangements it suggested, wondering whether she would finally find something more interesting in her future.
Constructing interesting and meaningful destinies for herself was Grace’s form of addiction. Aside from the tarot cards she used daily, she had always loved Ouija-boards (properly used), crystal balls and palm reading. She liked to find reasons and patterns in her life and everyone else’s, and most of the readings she did for herself with the deck of cards she’d bought at Fredrickson’s bookshop were subtly fixed to reassure herself that adventure was waiting around the corner. She had only once had a real fortune-teller give her a reading, and while she thought the woman herself had been a little bit disappointing, Grace had felt like she was in the presence of something which was guiding her towards a misty and romantic future.
She stared and stared at the cards in the book, deciding that these new patterns looked promising. She felt a strong sense in her stomach that these would give her the readings she knew were waiting for her; real readings she wouldn’t need to fix.
She looked up from the book for a moment, wondering if she should try a brief reading now, while it seemed like something was changing for her. Her eye fell on the newspaper, and for a moment she stopped thinking about tarot. There was a cute little blonde girl smiling out from the paper, and Grace didn’t need to read the article to know that another kid had gone missing.
But she couldn’t help reading it anyway, skimming over the details about the girl, who was just eight, and had vanished from her garden the day before.
Eight years old, she thought, with a cold feeling. Maggie and Benjamin’s age. And at Saranac Lake, too. Only ten miles away this time.
This was the third disappearance of a young child in the last month. The last two had caused Ma to give them a long lecture on stranger danger and never going anywhere alone, which Grace thought pretty silly when they were never allowed to anyway. And then Ma had come to Grace’s room late at night to ask her to keep an extra close eye on her brother and sister.
As she read on, about the search parties out combing the mountains, she tuned in and out of the chatter from next door. She heard Ma’s attempts to persuade the twins that it was time to get dressed, that they didn’t need to watch TV, and so on. Dad descended from upstairs at around the time that Ma was about to lose her temper, releasing Ma to finish getting ready, a few minutes late already.
Ma came in to see her, and she folded the newspaper so the front page was hidden. That kind of trick rarely worked on Ma, but she was too worked up about the trip to notice.
“I’ll see you this evening, ok?” she said, as if she was about to cross the Atlantic instead of the state.
“Have a good trip,” Grace told her.
Ma went to the door, but then hesitated, her brow drawn into a frown.
“Maybe I shouldn’t go,” she said, quietly, and Grace stared at her.
“Ma, it’s the most important meeting you’ve ever had,” she said, in disbelief.
“I know, I know, but – Dad doesn’t know where to go, and he’s so forgetful…”
“We’ll be fine, Ma,” she said, and then, more firmly, “really.”
Ma stood there for a long time, staring into space.
“You’ll be careful?” she asked, quietly. “You’ll make sure they’re ok? Keep Benjamin in check?”
Grace nodded, trying not to let her impatience show. At last, Ma nodded, and walked slowly away. Grace listened to the front door shut with relief. She loved Ma like crazy, but it was easier being around a hyperactive Maggie than it was dealing with Ma when she was wound-up.
Dad poked his head around the door a few minutes later, his hair looking almost dark where it was still wet.
“Have you had breakfast?”
“Not yet,” Grace told him.
Grace grinned at him. “You bet.”
Dad retreated to the kitchen amidst a stereo-sound protest that it wasn’t fair, and when Grace came through a short while later it was to see Benjamin attempting to eat a maple-syrup waffle after finishing his two pop-tarts and complaining that he felt sick between mouthfuls. Dad looked over at Grace as he flipped a waffle out of the iron and onto a plate, and rolled his eyes.
“If you were growing up in Russia…” he said, in a wonderful imitation of Ma.
“You’d have been beaten with a strap by now!” Maggie and Benjamin chorused in response, and Grace couldn’t help laughing, even though part of her felt like a traitor.
Grace’s good mood fell a little on the walk to school. The snow that had brightened the town had been driven and trodden into slush down the High Street, and the dreary small-town shops that made up the centre of High Peaks looked pretty much the same as they always had.
Worse still, Thursday meant Biology, which was a class she shared with The Rachels. The Rachels were both beautiful (though one more than the other) and perfectly groomed. They were always surrounded by a group of eager fans wanting to be friends with them, and they saw Grace as an absolute outsider. That was, when they saw her at all.
It had never been easy for Grace, with her foreign Mom and the strange-looking clothes she had dressed her in at first. The fact that they had struggled for money for a long time hadn’t helped, and nor had Ma’s determination that she shouldn’t go anywhere without an adult – and by “an adult,” Ma actually meant her.
Perhaps as a result of all this, Grace had always felt a little outside everything. She saw these other children playing and talking to each other, and she didn’t really understand how it was done.
That had never really changed, even with Ma’s increasing success with her sculptures, and with her meeting Dad. Both of those had made them better off and more certain that they belonged in this country, but Grace still felt more comfortable immersed in a good book or chatting to her family than she had ever felt in the company of her peers. The students still seemed to pick up on her misfit status and turn their backs on her. She had a few vague friends, some of the other less popular girls, but that was all. And none of them seemed to like her all that much; any more, in fact, than she really liked them.
Grace went into the elementary school to drop Maggie and Benjamin, watching with admiration and a little spark of envy as they raced in and immediately hooked up with three friends. Then she let Dad walk alongside her the few extra blocks to High Peaks College. In any other town it would probably have been called a high school, but even the small-town inhabitants had felt that “High Peaks High” sounded a little ridiculous.
Dad walked in silence, picking up on her slightly glum mood as he usually did. A short way before the school gates, he asked her, “All ok, Gracie?”
“Yeah,” she said, wondering if he had ever been a loner at school. She couldn’t believe that he had. Dad had such easy charm and good humour, and he had passed it on to Maggie and Benjamin. She just wished some of it would rub off on her.
“Am I meeting you here?”
“No,” she told him, with a smile. “I’ll see you outside Maggie’s dance class.”
Dad frowned for a minute. “Does that mean I have to pick Benjamin up first?”
“No,” she told him patiently, “he has football. You just need to be outside the gym for quarter to four and he’ll meet you there.”
Dad hugged her briefly. “I’m glad one of us around here is a responsible adult.”
Grace tried to smile back, but for some reason the remark made her feel even more cut-off. She wasn’t supposed to be an adult. She was meant to be a stroppy teenager, out until all hours and causing her parents all kinds of worry. All she needed to do to worry Ma was mention that she wanted to walk home on her own.
She left Dad at the gates and walked quickly into the school, her head down but her eyes looking left and right as she waited for someone to notice her.
The day dragged by. Grace wished, during the endless lunch break, that she had brought the tarot book with her, but she cringed at the thought that The Rachels or some of the cooler boys might see her and mock her, or worse, steal it. So she sat at the loser table, nodding to Jasdeep and Cheney who often sat with her in English. They nodded in return and continued their quiet conversation about the fair that had turned up over at Saranac Lake.
“Rachel’s Dad drove her to see it,” Cheney said, her voice quiet with envy. “She said it was the most amazing one she’d ever been to.”
“Of course she did,” Jasdeep answered, scornful.
“But Mikey Dingle says it’s the same one they went to in Elizabethtown,” Cheney went on. “He didn’t stop talking about it for like a week. They had the most incredible acts there.”
Something should have struck home then, Grace realised later. The fair in Saranac Lake, where little blonde Kelly Irish had gone missing; the same fair that had been in Elizabethtown a month ago, where a kid called Lily Wong had vanished.
But she was too busy resenting the fact that she’d never be allowed to go. Grace had never been to a fair in her life. Ma hated them, distrusted them, and ranted about them whenever one came within twenty miles of High Peaks.
With a sigh, she pulled out her phone, and spent thirty-five minutes beating her high score on Tetris.
The tortuous lunch period eventually ended, and she walked alone to her locker. She was gathering her books for Math when her phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out with the same excitement which always gripped her. Part of her hoped every time that it was someone in her year, finally deciding that she was worth texting.
She opened her inbox and felt a crushing disappointment. It was only Ma, texting to let her know that the meeting was over, and reminding her not to be late to the school, and not to let Maggie or Benjamin fall behind on the walk home. A moment later another text arrived, reminding her that they shouldn’t be allowed to run ahead, either.
Almost angry with Ma, she switched her phone off, taking a moment’s cruel delight in the thought that she would probably be waiting for a reply. Well she could wait. Grace was tired of being the responsible one.
By the next day, she wanted to go back and kick herself, to shout that if she’d just had her phone on, none of what followed might have happened. She wanted to wave that newspaper article in her face, and ask why she hadn’t realised something was very wrong. But the Grace of that moment just picked up her books and headed to class.
You can read the rest of the book for free on Wattpad, up until the end of 2014.