‘It’s locked! That cretin,’ Addvid swore. The steel tip of his boot connected with a thud, flinging chips of wood into the air. The door rattled in its hinges.
‘Calm down, Addvid,’ Mera said, frowning.
‘Calm down?’ the dwarf exploded. ‘We ain’t had any doors for a year, and now that we found one, the damn thing’s locked! I’m tired of shittin’ in the cold. Make him give ‘em all back!’ He aimed another kick.
‘Calm down,’ she repeated, pulling the shawl around herself tightly. ‘He won’t do it if he gets upset.’ She winced at the next thud. ‘And stop kicking! It might be the only one left. Show it some respect.’
Addvid shook his head, shards of frost flying from his beard. ‘I don’t care ‘bout the door, Mera. I care ‘bout the nitwit inside. If it takes a hundred kicks to make him come out, then my boot’s ready.’
They both jumped as it swung open to reveal a pale young man in blue robes. He scowled at them from the doorway.
‘Have you lost all sense of propriety? Forcing my locks; vandalising my front door. I expect no less from the dwarf, but I would assume an elf understands the basics of decorum.’
Mera was the first to recover. ‘It’s been a year, you see, and we’re not used to knocking on doors anymore. Sorry.’
‘What?’ the wizard said. Then his eyebrows shot up. ‘Oh.’
‘What do you mean, oh?’ Addvid demanded. ‘The place’s in a right mess ‘cause of your spell. You know how bloody cold it is without a door to keep the chill out in winter? And they’ve had to start makin’ all the rooms L-shaped now, so you can’t walk past and see anythin’ you shouldn’t. Put the bloody doors back!’
‘Please,’ Mera swallowed. ‘The Queen is very sorry for what happened. She promises to never intrude on your privacy again.’
The wizard did not reply at first. He regarded them briefly, then stood aside and motioned for them to enter. ‘Come. I will show them to you.’
The heat in the wizard’s home made Mera loosen her shawl for the first time in months. They followed him through one hallway after another, and she could see all manner of doors mocking her from the shadows.
‘Did it ever occur to you to build new ones?’ the wizard said as he walked.
‘Aye, we tried it,’ Addvid said. ‘Kept disappearin’ soon as they were made.’
At that the trace of a smile appeared on the wizard’s lips. They walked for a time longer until he stopped in front of a door. ‘They’re in here,’ he said, pushing it open.
The room was vast, much too large to be contained within the wizard’s cottage, but it was not just the scale of it that took Mera’s breath away. She realised abruptly that the slabs of wood, stone, steel and straw arranged in towering piles were doors. The piles stretched onwards into the depths of the room, too numerous to count.
‘You magicked ‘em ‘ere?’ Addvid said. ‘They didn’t just… disappear?’
‘I could not simply make the doors vanish; that is not how magic works,’ the wizard replied. ‘They had to go somewhere, so I brought them here. And let me tell you: it was not easy to store thousands of doors for an entire year. Some fools had theirs made from cheese – those rat-folk, I assume – and I did not know they had melted, since they were buried underneath the others. I would not advise going any further into the room. Good heavens, I cannot describe the stench…’
‘Can you put them all back? Please?’ Mera asked.
The wizard hesitated. ‘Yes, I believe so. And it sounds as if the kingdom has suffered enough. Very well, I shall return them. Though I fear restoring the cheese doors is beyond my skill.’
‘It’s ‘bout damn time,’ Addvid sniffed. ‘Just don’t mess it up, eh?’
‘I will do my best. Magic is precise work, dwarf,’ he said. ‘But there is a problem. The counter-spell requires a pure and whole sacrifice.’
A silence stretched.
‘I’ll be it,’ the dwarf said finally. ‘You’ve your whole life ahead of you, Mera. Use it well.’
‘No, Addvid,’ she said over the lump in her throat. ‘You cannot leave your little ones. And I was chosen to be the messenger for a reason.’
The dwarf’s eyes shined when he looked back at her, but he said no more. They embraced quickly before turning back to the wizard, whose face now carried the same scowl as earlier.
‘I will keep this simple, fools. The counter-spell is bringing back doors, not people. Therefore a door must be sacrificed, not a person. The front door is not essential. It will do.’ He stalked back into the corridor without bothering to see if they followed.
Mera felt the tips of her ears burning as she trailed the wizard. Addvid shuffled along beside her, and they eventually stood outside facing the entrance to the cottage.
‘What do we do?’ Addvid said.
The wizard sighed. ‘Shut up and stand back.’
He closed his eyes and began to murmur strings of words that Mera did not recognise. His hands waved back and forth in complex motions, leaving sparks trailing in their wake. She startled as the door suddenly burst into flame; blue tongues reached out and upwards to engulf the wood. It was gone in seconds, leaving behind a scorch mark on the wall of the cottage. The wizard frowned for a moment as he dusted his hands. Then he shrugged.
‘Oh well. Hopefully that should do it. I will just teleport inside from now on.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘And tell the Queen that I hope she has learned the value of knocking.’
‘Thank you, Sir Wizard. We appreciate it,’ Mera said.
Some weeks of travelling later, Addvid’s village came into view at last. He could not keep the excitement out of his voice.
‘Just wait ‘til you see their faces. They’re goin’ to call me a hero ‘round these parts from now on! And at the inn, they’ll raise their…’ He trailed off as they came closer. ‘Where’s everyone? Why’s it so quiet?’
‘Maybe they’re enjoying their privacy?’
The dwarf grunted. ‘Aye, perhaps, but I know my own, and it’s not like ‘em to be hidin’ away like that bloody wizard.’ He stopped in front of one of the huts, brows furrowed. ‘This one ‘ere is mine. But the door should be– what the ruddy heck?’
Mera’s mouth fell open. The hut was intact, but there was a colossal stone slab obstructing the entrance. She could not imagine how it was moved there, unless–
She jerked her head around to scan the other huts, shivers climbing up her spine. Some were blocked with stone slabs, too, though they were different shapes and sizes, and others had hunks of steel instead. A few of them had ordinary straw or wooden doors, and some had none at all, but each one stood empty and lifeless. A solitary rat scampered across the road.
Beside her Addvid was straining, hands scrabbling against the stone, pushing it with all his strength. Mera sank to her knees, bile rising in her throat. She put a desperate hand on her friend’s shoulder.
‘Do you smell that, Addvid? It’s everywhere. So odd, it almost smells like–’
‘Aye. It’s cheese.’ He slumped, unable to meet her gaze. ‘He sacrificed the front door, didn’t he? That’s why it failed. And all the doors got swapped ‘round.’
Her grip tightened. ‘I told you, didn’t I? I told you not to kick it!’
The dwarf could not bring himself to reply, so they sat in defeated silence. The only sound they could hear was the distant chittering of rats.