The door had been there longer than Anna had been alive.
Which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t a particularly long time. It was, however, long enough that the door had influenced the day-to-day life of both commoners and nobility. The key industry was alive and booming, and vendors promised things that everyone knew they had no way of knowing. Wild riches, true love, freedom…
But humans wanted to think they controlled things, so they bought into the key industry and hoped for the best.
The door had a few rules, best anyone could tell.
First, the door would open for any key, but what lay on the other side depended on what key had turned the lock.
Second, each key only opened the door once. There were no take-backs, so if you didn’t like what you got, that was just too bad.
Third, the door would only open once for each person, regardless of key. This had also caused some confusion with rule number two, as many argued that perhaps it was possible the door could be opened by the same key but a new person, or a different key with the same person. But these had all been tried, and had failed, and there was clearly no doubt that it was once per person and once per key.
The final rule (more of a guideline or acceptance of risk, really) was that some people just… didn’t come back from beyond the door. It didn’t happen often, but sometimes, the door swallowed a person whole and refused to return them.
Whether that was a good or bad thing really depended on who you asked.
In Anna’s opinion, that really wasn’t the worst fate. There were far worse things that could happen to a person. Falling through the ice, for example. Falling on a misplaced spear. Hypothermia. A whole host of things could be worse than being taken by a door.
Then again, who knows what lay on the other side? Perhaps for those people, the other side was your worst fear. Or the way you most feared dying. Or perhaps it was a loop of being rejected by your favorite loved one.
Anna jolted, startled out of her reverie by a deep voice. Something nudged her shoulder and she looked over to see big, brown reindeer eyes staring earnestly at her. A slightly harder shove from the other side told her Kristoff had also appeared, and that Sven was not, in fact, a talking reindeer.
Would that be what Sven wished for, if he could open the door? What would a reindeer want, anyway?
“Shut up,” she laughed, shoving him back. “It’s thinking, which you’d understand if you did more of it.”
Kristoff’s fake offense was as hilarious as it was exaggerated – which was, of course, very. He placed a hand over his heart, gasping, “Oh, ouch! Rude!” He rolled his eyes. “So, what were you ‘thinking’ about?”
There was a glint in his eye, and Anna knew that he already knew. He also disapproved heavily.
“Oh, nothing. You know, locksmithing things.”
“Mm-hm. Sure. No doors.”
She rolled her eyes, popping a few extra safeties into the lock she had been working on. The neighbors had issues with their dog opening the door, which meant it was definitely not enough to keep out an intruder. “It just fascinates me, okay? Haven’t you ever wondered what’s inside?”
He scoffed. “Nope. Could be riches. Could be a monster. Not a risk I wanna take.”
“Probably not a monster, though.”
“I dunno, could be. People vanish.” He sighed, flopping onto one of the workbenches near Anna. “Besides, I have most of what I need. Decent job, okay hut, great friends.”
“Too bad we can’t find you a wife,” Anna scoffed, and after a moment’s consideration added, “Or husband. Either way.”
“It’s not my fault that I’m so handsome I’m unapproachable,” Kristoff sighed.
Anna chuckled and let him stay, occasionally tossing a lock his way to play with. If he didn’t have something to do, his hands would wander and gods only know what trouble he’d get into in her shop.
It was late into the night, well past dark, when she finally finished the last lock. Technically speaking, she could have made her own key. She had all the materials, and it wouldn’t take long. A few good whacks with a hammer after a red-hot iron and she’d have a perfectly good, crude key. It didn’t even have to be nice.
“Hey Kristoff?” she asked, voice cutting through the hour-long silence. “What do you think would happen if you picked the lock on the door?”
The silence stretched on, and Anna was certain Kristoff had fallen asleep again until she turned around to find him watching her.
They had been over this enough times that she knew what was coming.
“Why are you so invested in this?”
There it was. Anna sighed. “I told you, it just interests me.” She muttered an apology to Sven when the clanging of her tools woke him as she placed them all back in the box. “I just… think it’s neat. I like unknown things. Nobody knows anything about the door except the rules.” Another silence stretched between them and she continued, wanting to fill the awkward silence with something. “I mean… who controls the door? You know there are stories, people who claim to have met the person or… force… controlling it?”
“Anna, it’s a weird door that showed up in the forest in the middle of winter. That’s the most neon stay-away sign you could ever find. People are just too dumb to take it seriously and, surprisingly, the door isn’t always vicious.” His brow arched, and Anna groaned as he added, “But sometimes it is.”
“Fine, fine, you’re right.” She waved him off, and there was no way that Kristoff was convinced, but he dropped it this time.
They went the rest of the night without talking about the door, bidding each other farewell late into the night. Anna locked the shop and climbed up into her loft, blowing out the candle, and rolled over to look out the window. Much to her surprise, snow started falling.
She loved this weather. It was perfect, cozy sleeping weather.
And for some reason, it always made her heart feel a little warmer.
By morning, the snow was mostly melted. What a shame. She had been hoping to see some on the ground before she opened for the morning.
Her usual morning ritual included a bath, a hot chocolate, and a quick read of one of the many, many history books lining her walls. Today, she skipped the book in favor of something more interesting: a good, hard look at all her lock-picking supplies.
She couldn’t go now, of course. She had nothing saved and no food. If she had any interest in finding the door, she would have to plan for it. Locksmithing was a skilled craft and paid decently, but she still just scraped by most weeks.
And that was fine by her. She liked her work, she had enough free time to invest in hobbies, and she didn’t have much she wanted to buy, regardless. No, the thing that had always bothered her was just how… regular it all was. Get up, bathe, get hot chocolate, close shop, go to bed. There were variations on that, of course, but it was still such a routine. That was the part that got her. She wanted adventure, she wanted excitement.
She wanted freedom.
The door probably couldn’t give her something that was essentially just a concept, but perhaps there was something tangible to be gained that would help her. Of course, if she could get the door.
Something interested her about the idea of picking the lock. To her knowledge, nobody had ever tried. Why would they? Keys were readily available, of the shabby, regular, and fancy varieties. Even if someone didn’t specifically buy a door key, everyone had keys. Their house, their safe, their stable, their barn… there were keys everywhere.
Why not use one of her own? Or make one of her own?
Admittedly, she was curious. What would happen? Would the door open?
Weeks passed. Snow fell harder, coating the ground with powder. Every day that Anna looked out to find it on the ground, she felt a higher sense of urgency to leave. Soon it would be too cold to make the journey, and she would have to wait until spring. She had been stockpiling money for some time, just bits and pieces, but now she had begun actively saving.
Money would be unnecessary for the door, of course. It wasn’t like paying for a drink, no. But she did need to pay her month’s rent and buy some staples for the road. Like hot cocoa… and some non-perishable food items.
Just after the first snowstorm of the season, she counted all her funds. There was enough for whatever she might need here. Enough to pay her rent, buy a few things from the market, get Marshmallow properly shod and a new saddle pad. His was old and worn, and she was lucky he hadn’t gotten rain rot from it.
She started planning.
And of course, as soon as she told Kristoff, he exploded.
“Are you insane? Winter is starting, there are going to be blizzards soon! What if you get mugged? What if you get kidnapped?” His voice was quiet, but angry. “Are you serious, Anna? You have responsibilities.”
Of course he’d be the most unsupportive person in the world about this. Anyone else would’ve been thrilled that she decided to try her luck. “My responsibilities will be fine for a couple of weeks,” she snapped.
“I’m not a little kid, I know what I’m doing. I’ve already packed plenty to eat, extra blankets, tent… I’ll be fine, Kristoff, I used to camp in winter all the time.” Before my parents passed hung heavy between them.
“Alright, well, I’m going with you then.”
“What? No. Absolutely not.”
“I just want to help!”
“You’ll help by staying here!”
She hated fighting with Kristoff. He had been nothing but kind and welcomed her into his house when her parents passed. They’d tried dating for a few months before realizing they were best as friends… and best friends they had become. She had yet to meet someone as fiercely loyal as Kristoff (except maybe Sven) and she loved the guy to pieces. But Gods could he be infuriating.
“I appreciate the offer. I do. Really. But I want – I need to do this alone.” Because I may not want to come back, and I can’t face that. “But I’ll be back soon. Two weeks, tops. I promise.”
Kristoff was pouting. She’d seen it a million times, and it was adorable, but it wasn’t enough to sway her. After a long, tense moment he gave up with an exasperated sigh. “Fine! Fine. Go by yourself. But If you aren’t back in two weeks, I’m coming to look for you.” She didn’t have a chance to reply before he grabbed her in a bear hug. “Don’t die out there, okay?”
“Gonna do my best,” she grinned.
She double- and triple- checked her supplies, double- and triple- checked that Marshmallow’s tack was all fitted right, and gave him a carrot before they headed out. A big draft horse, he had been her trusty companion for eight years. He was the perfect horse for this weather – His winter coat always grew in long and shaggy, and she could see little baby hairs starting to fluff out already. He’d be fuzzy by the time they reached the door.
On day three, Anna realized she didn’t bring a compass.
And proceeded to curse herself, the forest, the gods, and her ancestors. How the hell would she find her way home now?
But she was already this far, so she found a piece of clothing she deemed unnecessary and started ripping little strips off it. A cloth trail would have to do. Hopefully nobody else would tear it down. Then she’d be really screwed.
She paused for a break each night, but as she neared what she knew to be the general area everyone else said the door was in, she just skipped a night. She’d get there faster if she was able to just push through.
Nobody had ever really described the door. Or if they did, it looked different to every person. It was a mysterious, fickle thing, and Anna was interested to know what her door looked like.
Maybe she’d try to sketch it?
Her hands twitched on the reins anxiously and she tried to concentrate on something else. The snap of branches in the wind, Marshmallow’s snorts in the cold air. Her own heartbeat. Any of those would be a better idea than the creeping dread she felt.
They made better time than she thought they would. At twelve days, it was a full two days’ ride less than what she expected. Part of it was likely that Marshmallow was a very large horse with a very large stride, and the rest may have been that Anna was just… so eager to get here.
She recognized the valley before her, and she also knew approximate directions. Maps had never failed her before, and she’d be damned if they did now.
Anna dismounted for a break (and a pee, gods she had to pee) and after some food and water, felt significantly better. Marshmallow had entertained himself by snuffling about for tender shoots still hidden under the snow, and he was surprisingly successful.
The valley seemed… colder… than she had anticipated. There was a chill that felt like the cold, yes, but also something else. The sort of windchill that one experienced from a mixture of a snowstorm and being pursued by a monster.
Probably just nerves, she reasoned, and pressed on.
The door was some twenty paces off from her map, but that was fine. Really, she hadn’t expected it to be this easy at all. Everyone had always told her the door sort of… found them, but she hadn’t believed it. Why would it? What business did a door have just coming to people?
Now she was second-guessing this choice. What if it was a monster on the other side? What if it was something worse?
Anna shook her head and tightened her grip on the reins. No, it wouldn’t do to think like that. She was already here, there was no point in turning around now. What would she say if she went home, anyway? “Oh, I couldn’t do it, I’m a huge coward and chickened out at the last minute”? What would that say about her?
She was nothing if not reckless. For better or worse.
The ground under her boots was soft, springy, as she hopped down. She led Marshmallow to a nearby tree, untacked him, and hung a bucket for him to eat from while he waited for her. She had already tied him to the tree and gone a few paces toward the door when she turned back, removing his halter as well. His big, dark eyes watched her as she leaned her head on his.
“On the off chance I don’t come back, you go back home, okay? Don’t die out here.”
He huffed, and she wasn’t sure he understood her, but it satisfied her nonetheless. She left him free to wander as he please, confident that if he could come back, he would. If she came back.
No, when she came back.
Her fingers twitched again, and she had already begun to rifle through her bag of lockpicking items when she actually came to the door.
The door had appeared to attach itself to a large cliff face. There was nothing on the other side of it, of course – the first few places the door had popped up, people tried to excavate it to see if the door was actually a tunnel. It wasn’t, as evidenced by the colossal failures to excavate it.
And also the fact that it moved freely about the area.
Sentient doors were just… really not normal.
Anna wasn’t sure what she expected… but it wasn’t this.
The door was huge. White. But what stunned her most were the designs on the door. They were etched, as if someone had carefully and painstakingly hand-carved them. But that was impossible. They must have been magicked into existence – if that was even how this worked.
Still… she couldn’t help but take a closer look. It was obvious that these designs were important, and as she traced them with her fingertips, recognition dawned. These were stories. Further, most of them were her stories. Little shenanigans from her past. When she lost her first tooth, the first time she rode a horse, her first failed attempt at lockpicking.
Her parents’ deaths.
Anna winced at that one.
But not all the designs were from her life. Some of them were totally foreign. One showed a fox escaping hunters. One showed a girl in a blizzard. One showed something else she couldn’t quite decipher.
Anna swallowed. This was spooky, but she was already here, and it was now or never.
She had to fiddle with the lock a bit. It was unsurprisingly stubborn, nearly impossible to crack. She tested each internal latch, waiting to hear each one click into place before moving to the next. This was the hardest part. Getting the order right was important, and it was hard to do when she was already listening over the howling wind.
She was about to just give up when she heard a click.
A loud click.
The lock had given. The door was loose. It was time.
She stared in abject terror for a long moment. Now would be the time to run, if she wanted to run. And part of her did. Part of her wanted to run far and fast.
But she was here, and the door had opened even for her unorthodox ways, and that must have meant something. Or at least, Anna chose to believe it did.
She stepped through the door.
The kingdom was quiet. Serene. The sound of windchimes were really all that kept her company these days, save for a white cat she had named Olaf. The one who held her key, guarded carefully by his own brand of magic. She couldn’t touch the key herself. She could, however, pet the cat, pick him up, cuddle him when she wanted. He was highly personable, bordering on annoying, but he was quite endearing, nonetheless.
How long had she been here? Years? Decades? Perhaps centuries? She had no way of knowing. She never met the visitors, as she called them. Their doors were to other parts of the kingdom. Other places within the realm. Whatever they desired, or whatever desired them.
This arrangement worked just fine for her. Creating new portals gave her something to do in this otherwise dull and boring place. She built things for herself, of course. Anything to make her own life more comfortable.
She was… content, for the most part. The Court didn’t care about her comfort, only her purpose, but allowed her freedom to make what she wished as long as it enabled her to do her own job better.
She expected visitors, of course, and she watched them through her mirrors. Usually they were men, or older women begging for their children’s health. The doors didn’t answer to demands, though. They answered to the heart’s deepest desire, which meant that even she didn’t always know what that was. Not until it was bestowed.
People got angry at what was behind their door. They kicked, screamed, punched things. She wasn’t a fan of humankind. They were too temperamental, too spiteful. She didn’t appreciate that sort of response to her hard work. These were personalized doors, after all. It was rude to be spiteful just because you didn’t get what you wanted, but what you needed.
Much to her surprise, this visitor was… unlike most of her others. Of course, young women had come to the door before. Most of the time they sought love, or a way to make someone love them.
They generally left very upset.
She tilted her head, setting down her tea to watch the newest visitor fumble with the door.
And her breath caught in her throat.
The woman wasn’t very old. She guessed twenty, at most. Young. At the very start of her life. She was slender but looked strong. Perhaps a trade type? It seemed to be more and more common these days for women to hold jobs that were traditionally “men’s” jobs. Whatever that meant.
Her hair looked… like a sunset. The type she had loved when she was young, when the sky was so blue and clear that all the sun could do was turn the whole sky copper. She loved the way it bathed everything in that warm light.
It had been so long since she had seen a true sunset.
Her brows knit together in confusion. The woman was still outside the door. She hadn’t come in, she hadn’t even turned a key yet. She just stood, watching and… tracing? Why was she so interested in the door? Nobody ever actually looked at the door (much to her chagrin, she spent so much time on them) much less with such reverence and awe on their face.
What an odd little human.
When the woman did finally try to open the lock, her confusion only intensified. Why… why was she picking the lock? What would that even do? Would the door even open for that? Nobody had ever tried that before. Who the hell picked a lot when there were keys everywhere?
Still, she had to hand it to the girl for ingenuity. It was certainly a new approach.
She watched curiously, more interested than she wanted to be, as the girl struggled with the lock. It seemed to take her forever, and she appeared frustrated, but she didn’t give up. She had no idea what this woman was doing, but she wore a tiny triumphant smile every few seconds as she fiddled with the lock.
Oh, the latches. Of course.
So engrossed in watching the woman, she didn’t bother to check what door would be opening. She hoped it would be something nice. Just from this, she liked the girl, and she wanted to give her something nice. Perhaps she could send a gift in.
On occasion, the doors had been extra generous for people that she was particularly fond of.
She glanced away to figure out which door would open.
And she froze.
There was… no, it couldn’t be. That was impossible. This door was inaccessible. This door wasn’t even supposed to show. Was this why she had been tracing the patterns so carefully? Why she had been so transfixed?
She had approximately three seconds to attempt thinking before the door cracked open. Running would have been an option. Or hiding, or perhaps just… knocking her unconscious and throwing her back outside?
But she couldn’t bring herself to do any of those things, and instead clasped her hands together in front of her so tightly that they hurt.
And she waited.
The woman didn’t even seem to see her at first. With luck, maybe she just… wouldn’t see her?
That was too much to ask, of course. Olaf, being his sweet and welcoming self, trotted over and rubbed against the visitor’s legs. She could hear his purr from across the room, and mentally, she kicked herself for keeping such a friendly animal.
The girl’s laugh was so… refreshing. Bright and clear, she giggled at the cat weaving around her calves. “Why, hello, sweet thing. Is this my subconscious telling me I need a–“
The visitor locked eyes with her, and she did her best to look like a statue. It was a terrible impression, of course – she was shaking. She could feel it. The copper-haired girl hesitantly moved toward her, and she felt like she was caught somewhere between leaping over the chair to run and just remaining stiff.
“… Who are you?”
She tried to resist. Really, she did. But it was so, so hard to have nobody to talk to for so long. Her voice was raspy when she finally used it. “How did you get in here?”
The girl looked offended. “I asked you first.” When she received nothing but a blank stare, she frowned. “I picked the lock?” The sheepish look on the visitor’s face was adorable, and it was a shame she wasn’t in a better place to appreciate it. “Oh, my name is Anna. Is this – are you part of my door… sequence, or whatever this is?” When the other person shook her head, Anna squinted at her. “Okay, so then… who are you?”
She hated being on the spot, even for simple questions. It made her feel weak. ”Els– she coughed, cleared her throat, and tried again. “Elsa. My name is Elsa. And again, I ask, how did you get in here?” She swallowed for the first time in years. “You’re… this isn’t actually a room for… visitors.”
“Oh, crap, I’m sorry! I’ll go, I didn’t know. Wait, is that what happens if you pick the lock?”
Elsa shrugged. “You’re the first one to try it.”
Anna grinned. “I’m inventive.”
Elsa nods warily. She feels, and probably looks, like a spooked animal. “This is. Um. This is my door. And that’s Olaf. My cat.”
“… So… my subconscious thinks I need to get laid? How… gross,” Anna scoffed. “Who are you, though?” Why are you here, behind the door? was the unspoken, real question. Anna’s teal eyes roamed all over her, and she wasn’t sure if she liked or hated the attention. It was… nice… to have company.
“I’m sorry, it’s a pre-measured algorithm. That’s why I didn’t expect you. What was your first thought when you came up?”
“Oh. Um. Probably something about cooking or cleaning. Or locksmithing.”
So it definitely wasn’t that. Elsa had been hoping, perhaps, that this could be explained by a simple miscalculation of the door. But no, apparently the door was just… a door, sometimes.
She was acutely aware of teal eyes staring at her, wide-eyed and curious, and when Anna took a step closer, she had to stop herself from flinching too obviously. It had been so long since she had companionship.
Oh no. What was she supposed to offer this visitor? She had never been confronted with the visitor before, had never needed to think up something so quickly. The magic did most of the work for her. That was why they had the system in the first place.
“Really, if it’s too much trouble, I can go–“
Elsa replied faster than she meant to. “Don’t be silly. The door opens once. Would be pointless to waste it.” She paused for a beat and added in a softer voice, “But I’m afraid I don’t… know what to give you. What would you like? I’m sure I can find something…”
“Oh, really, it’s okay, I’ll manage.” The delicately arched brow Elsa gave her seemed to quiet her momentarily. “I, um. Freedom. That’s what I was looking for, originally.”
Elsa stared at her for a beat. It figured that the strange visitor who picked the lock would want the impossible. “I don’t… I don’t think I can give you freedom.” How would she even go about doing that? The doors could have found a roundabout way, but she was just here to see to everything working right. She had no idea how to materialize a concept like that.
Copper hair bounced as Anna nodded, and Elsa took a good look at her for a moment. She was… prettier, standing in front of Elsa. The mirrors hadn’t done her justice. There was a smattering of freckles across her cheeks, deep teal eyes wide with wonder, copper hair pulled into matching braids.
She seemed to strike the balance between “adorable” and “attractive” quite well.
Why was that where her thoughts had gone?
Elsa shook it off. Just loneliness. That’s all. Just loneliness.
There was a pout on Anna’s pink lips, and she immediately felt bad that she couldn’t offer anything. With a motion, she called up a series of mirrors, and Anna startled briefly before inching closer.
“Looking for something comparable,” Elsa responded, detached. “Is there anything else I could offer you? Money? Something more tangible?”
The girl hesitated and her gaze flickered away for a moment. She was quiet for a long moment, but when she replied, it wasn’t much help, anyway. “No, sorry – I just – it was a stupid idea anyway.”
The crestfallen, limp wilt of her voice struck a chord somewhere deep in Elsa’s long-frozen heart, and she swallowed. “I’m sorry, I wish I could – the rest of the system usually takes care of this…” she trailed off, watching Anna rock back and forth on her heels. Like a child, she observed, and didn’t miss the fondness echoing in her mind. “You could… you could try again? With a key, this time?”
Olaf, the ever-needy creature, weaved around Anna’s legs with a loud meow. Anna considered him for a moment and tilted her head. Her eyes narrowed, and she crouched down, poking at his neck. Olaf jerked away, almost scowling, and Anna yanked her hand back with a yelp. “What was that?!”
Elsa’s brow furrowed. That was new. Usually it just… wouldn’t let you touch the key. But it had never shocked her or… whatever it just did to Anna. “The key to this door.” That wistful tone she despised colored her words, and she would have bitten off her own tongue if she could have. “Olaf is its guardian. Generally it doesn’t shock anyone, though.”
Olaf butted his head into Anna’s hand as an apology, and the girl chuckled under her breath. “Awfully sweet for a guardian, aren’t you?”
“Annoyingly so,” Elsa agreed, and the sharp, short laugh it earned her startled her. But it also made her feel… something.
It was a miracle she could feel at all.
They stayed that way in awkward, tense silence for a moment before Anna stood up again. “Well, if the door can’t do much for me on the freedom thing, I’ll get out of your hair.” She blinked, panic shot through her gaze, and she backtracked. “I mean, obviously I wasn’t in your hair, it’s a figure of speech, and your hair is really nice anyway, it looks very soft and…” she faded off, a flush of pink coloring her cheeks, and pursed her lips. “I’m gonna just – go. It was nice to meet you!”
The door was open, and had almost closed again, before Elsa snapped out of her confusion enough to shout, “Wait!”
That red head of hair popped back through the door. “For…?”
Elsa chewed her lip, worried it between her teeth, wrung her hands nervously before offering, “At least let me send you off with some food?”
Teal eyes narrowed again. “Is this like a trap thing? I eat the food and I get stuck here forever?”
The grimace Elsa shot her was laced with bitterness and ice. “Absolutely not. You’ll be free to go. But I know it’s winter out there, and I wouldn’t want you stuck out there without something warm.” A beat of silence, and she amended, “I wouldn’t want anyone stuck out there.”
She sent Anna off with several thermoses of coffee and hot cocoa, several flasks of water, and a small mountain of food, conveniently plopped outside the door. Before it closed, Anna eyed her. “You wanna come?”
There was something sad behind her smile, and she shook her head. “No, thank you. I’m fine here. Best of luck in your future ventures. I hope you get what you desire.”
Anna smiled, subdued and sad, and gave her a little wave. The door closed, the locks clicked back into place.
And Elsa was alone again.
for clarification: the door itself can do things like ideas and intangible desires, but Elsa is basically just an architect here. she has some sway but doesn't herself know how to do those things.