By The Prophet
A lot of people lose their keys and a lot of people lose friends. Etholle Valentine lost both on the same day.
At the age of ten, Etholle's best friend was Steve (Stephanie to her teachers) Tatton. They went to school together at St Catherine's and they were all but inseparable. They were like chalk and cheese, everyone said, yet they were always together. Etholle was a dreamer, imaginative and imprecise, her teachers spoke of her as gifted and sensitive but her academic skills were poor. She was a natural storyteller; the uncharitable would say a compulsive liar, but her stories were far enough removed from reality that there was little harm in it. Steve, on the other hand, was a precise and careful worker; 'very mature for her age', they called her, although bossy and overly serious. She had little time for play and for her, every game was a competition.
Despite these differences, they walked to and from school together, sat together in every class, hung out together at lunchtime, and went out together on warm, light summer evenings. Their parents encouraged this friendship wholeheartedly, considering the two girls to be a good influence on each other. Etholle was the only person who could involve Steve in any kind of play, while Steve made sure that Etholle, always scatty, never left anything behind.
It was winter when Etholle lost Steve. They walked home in the gathering dark, side-by-side, with Etholle bouncing animatedly and Steve listening patiently as her friend reeled off a story that she was making up on the spot. The air was bitterly cold but the two children were wrapped up snugly in their parkas, bobble hats and mittens. They were rosy-cheeked and shivering by the time that they reached Steve's house and dark clouds were gathering in the sky. Steve's mum met them at the door and ushered them both inside.
"Your mother called, Etholle," Steve's mum said. "She doesn't want you walking back on your own in this weather so she says you can have dinner here and she'll come and pick you up at eight on her way home from work. Okay, sweetie?"
"Yes, Missus Tatton," Etholle replied. "Thank you."
"She's worried you'd forget your keys and spent all night on the doorstep," Steve said.
"Steve!" Steve's mum chided. "Don't be unkind," she added, although of course it was perfectly true. Etholle's mother worked long hours and so Etholle had to let herself in and see to her own dinner. And as a matter of fact, she had lost her keys on this particular day.
Steve and Etholle ran through to Steve's room where they played until dinner time, with Etholle finding all manner of inventive ways to characterise Steve's assorted, expensive toys.
They ate when Steve's father returned, Steve's mum serving up spaghetti Bolognese. This was exotic fare by Etholle's standards and as she ate she pretended that she and Steve were fine ladies in fancy clothes, dining at some mediaeval banquet. She and Steve whispered together, Steve humouring her friend's pretences.
Then, suddenly, Etholle leaped to her feet in excitement.
"Snow!" She cried, pointing out of the window, where thick, heavy white flakes drifted like feathers in the darkness.
Steve jumped up as well, caught up in her friend's excitement for once. "Oh, yes. Can we go out and play in the snow?" She asked. "Please, Mum!"
"Finish your meal," Steve's mum told them. "Then if the snow stops falling you can go out for half an hour. If you wrap up warm," she added.
It snowed heavily but only for a short time, and So they finished their spaghetti, ate their apple crumble, wrapped up warm and ran out into the back garden to run and laugh and build a snowman. The moon was rising, and the snow-filled garden seemed transformed. It was almost as bright as day, but the light had a mysterious, bluish tinge to it.
The piled up snow for their snowman, but Steve was unsatisfied. "It's more of a ...well, a pillar than a man, isn't it?" she asked.
"Yeah!" Etholle exclaimed. "It is! It's a gate post!"
"A gate post?"
"Yeah! It's one of two posts of a magic gate."
Steve rolled her eyes at her friend. "A magic gate?"
"Oh, come on, Steve. Look, Where you have gate posts you have a gate; stands to reason. Let's build the second post and you'll see."
"Alright," Steve agreed.
Even though their fingers were beginning to go cold and numb, they gathered up the snow and built up a second pillar to match the first. Etholle carefully scraped away at one mound at a time until the two were virtually identical and shaped almost like gently fluted, Grecian columns.
Steve laughed delightedly at her friend's handiwork. "Beautiful, Ettie!" she applauded. "bravo. We've built a gateway - with no gate - between this end of the garden and the other."
"Don't be silly!" Etholle laughed, turning to face Steve. "It's a magic gate. See; now we've got the gateposts the gate just exists; only it's invisible."
"So we can see through it to the other side of the garden."
"No! We can't see through it. It isn't the garden on the other side of the gate; it's..." She paused for a moment, thinking hard. "It's the Frozen Land!"
"The Frozen Land?" Steve asked, her tone encouraging. She might be convinced that Etholle was as mad as a hatter, but her stories were always worth listening to.
"Yeah," Etholle explained. "The Frozen Land. It's a...a fairy kingdom, where it's always winter 'cause..."
"Because there's a White Witch who makes it always winter but never Christmas?" Steve teased.
"No!" Etholle protested, sounding hurt that her best friend would so blatantly accuse her of plagiarism. "Because there's a prince, right; a handsome prince of the fairies who rules the land. And he's all cold and cruel, see, because of an evil spell that was put on him, and as long as his heart is frozen, so is the land. And everyone suffers because the prince takes their children away when they're born, and when they come back aged five, they're all cold and cruel as well. Yeah," she finished, evidently proud of her invention.
"That's a horrid story," Steve accused.
"It's true!" Etholle insisted.
"Alright," Steve challenged. "Let's open the gate and see what's behind it."
"Alright," Etholle replied. She walked over to stand between the two gate posts and put out her hands. She curled her fingers as though around the handles of a gate, then stopped.
"Go on, Ettie!"
"I...I'm not sure," Etholle replied.
"I'm scared, Steve. I...I can feel the handles. I don't want to open the gate."
"You big baby," Steve replied. She was not insensitive by nature, but in the manner of a child she could not understand Etholle's fear of something she could not herself comprehend. She strode forward, pushed Etholle aside, reached out and shoved against an imaginary barrier, intending to prove that there was no barrier.
But there was a barrier, and at Steve's touch it swung wide. The moonlight that shone between the two pillars of snow took on a different hue; colder and harsher than that elsewhere in the garden. The row of pine trees at the back of the garden could no longer be seen; instead the denuded branches of ash and elm hung heavy with snow, standing like black skeletons at a point far more distant than the garden fence.
"Etholle..." Steve breathed, mesmerised. "Oh, Etholle; you were right." She took a step forward.
"Steve. Come back!" Etholle cried.
"What's wrong?" Steve asked. She turned, and in doing so travelled another step away from Etholle. "Come on!" she called. "Isn't this what you've always wanted us to do, Ettie? Go on an adventure. Let's go!"
"No!" Etholle called. "We can't. It's not right, it's not safe. My mum's coming to pick me up and...It's not a nice place," she finished, in a tone of despair. Steve did not seem to be aware of it, but she had backed up another six steps. "Come back!" Etholle pleaded.
"We'll just go a short way," Steve suggested. "Just a little way and we can come back."
"I don't like it. I'm scared."
"What could happen?" Steve asked. "We can still see the house."
"Steve! Please stop!"
With a start, Steve realised that she was still moving backwards. She was at least ten feet beyond the gateway by now. Suddenly, she looked afraid as well, and she leaned towards Etholle.
"Come back!" Etholle pleaded.
"I...I can't," Steve sobbed. "I c-can't move, Ettie. Help me. Please help..." She broke off in a scream of terror as the gates began to swing inwards.
Etholle still saw nothing, but the strange, unearthly moonlight began to vanish and the pine trees were there as well and the broadleaves. "Steve!" She scrambled to her feet and lunged for the threshold of the gate, but with a sharp crash the invisible gates swung together and Steve was hidden from her sight. At that crash, the left hand pillar broke in half and collapsed into a shapeless mass.
Etholle fell full length in the snow, lying directly between the gateposts. There was no gate.
"Etholle! Your mother's here."
Golden light fell across Etholle as the back door opened. She looked up, frantically searching for her friend. Steve couldn't be gone; it was just a story.
"Steve!" she cried, at the top of her lungs. She took a deep breath to yell again, but the cold froze her throat and she choked. She saw long legs whirl past her as Steve's mum ran out into the garden, looking here and there for her daughter.
"Oh, Steve," Etholle pleaded, gasping the words into the frozen air. "Oh, please come back, Steve. I'm sorry. It was a horrid story, I know that and I'm sorry. Oh, please don't be lost."
"Where is she!" Steve's mum demanded. "Where's Steve!"
Etholle could only sit up in the snow and weep. Steve's mum turned around and began dashing around the garden, desperately searching behind every tree and plant pot.
Steve's dad came down from the back door and wrapped Etholle in his arms. "Come on," he told her. "Come inside where it's warm."
"It won't do any good for you to freeze to death. You come inside and tell us what happened." He looked up and called to his wife: "Come back in!"
"I have to find her, Patrick!" Steve's mum replied.
"Come inside, Meg! You'll catch your death running round in only a sweater. Come and put a coat on and we'll go around the block."
Steve's dad was a star. He got Etholle's mum in from the car and made his shivering wife wrap herself up beside the fire while he and Etholle's mum drove around the block, knocking on doors and asking after Steve. Steve's mum just sat very still, glaring at Etholle.
"What happened?" she asked, grimly. Steve's dad and Etholle's mum seemed to think that this did not matter yet, but having heard Etholle's choked confession, Steve's mum was convinced that Etholle knew something.
"I don't know," Etholle sobbed. "I just...I made up a story, and then it was true and the door closed and Steve was gone."
"Th-the Frozen Land."
"And where is the Frozen Land?"
Etholle dissolved into floods of tears, but Steve's mum would not be put off.
"Where is it, Etholle?" she demanded. "Tell me where my daughter went!"
"I don't know! I made it up. I just...It isn't real but then it was real and Steve...She went through the gate."
Steve's mum was on her feet and then at once knelt in front of Etholle and seized her shoulders. "Which gate?"
"The snow gate. I made it for a game but then it was there and Steve went through it. I tried to go after her, Missus Tatton, I did, but when it closed the gate post fell down and it wasn't there anymore. The gate wasn't there anymore."
"Tell me what you did with her!" Steve's mum yelled, shaking Etholle so hard it made her teeth rattle and her head jerk back and forth on her neck. "Tell me...!"
"Meg! Get away from that girl!" Steve's dad swept down like a guardian angel and pulled his stricken wife away from Etholle. "For God's sake, Meg; calm down. It isn't Etholle's fault."
Etholle's mum came into the lounge and drew Etholle back, wrapping her in her protective embrace. In her mother's arms and with Steve's dad to protect her, for the first time since she had felt the handles of the gate beneath her fingers, Etholle felt safe. She was still afraid though: Afraid for Steve, and for Steve's dad if Steve's mum kept flailing at him like that.
Steve's mum thrashed like a mad woman. "The pillar! She said Steve was trapped when the pillar...My God; she's buried!" She struggled free of her husband's arms and ran to the back door.
"I'm sorry, Amanda," Steve's dad said, turning to Etholle's mum while already backing after his wife.
"I understand," Etholle's mum assured him. "You go after her."
After a while, Etholle freed herself from her mother's grip and went to the back window. The snow-covered garden no longer looked beautiful. Now it was cold and frightening and forbidding. Her mother walked up behind Etholle, and she leaned back into that unquestioning embrace.
"I won't tell anymore stories," Etholle promised. "No more stories."
Her mother held her tightly as she stared out into the garden, where Steve's mum was tearing at the snow pillars, searching in vain for her lost daughter.