Next time she snuck out, Hildy decided, her brothers would not be coming with her. They couldn't keep silent when they encountered just the slightest bit of trouble, and normally she was the loudest of the lot. At least Gudrun knew how to talk in a whisper, even if she was afraid of the dark and wanted to go back. Actually next time, Hildy decided, she would just go alone.
“I want to go back to bed. I don't want to get caught and I don't want to get in trouble.” As if listening to Hildy's thoughts, Gudrun started whining. Quietly, thank the Norns. “Hildy, I'm scared.” Her younger sister tugged on Hildy's elbow and looked up at her with frightened eyes.
Hildy sighed. “We're trying to get back to bed. And we won't be caught, as long as those two stop making such a racket,” she hissed and glared at her brothers.
They glared right back. “We aren't making a racket,” Gunnar retorted, and Hildy winced at how loud his voice was. “But we told you we should've turned right instead of left at the entrance to the Grand West Wing. And now we 're lost and it's your fault.” Gunnar pointed an accusing finger at Hildy while Hrolf nodded sagely at his side. As if Hrolf hadn't agreed with Hildy at first. The traitor.
“That wasn't where we got lost. We took the wrong passageway just outside the Hall of the Vanir because you said it was a shortcut,” Hildy replied, but in a very anger whisper to demonstrate that one could complain without waking up the whole palace.
If she was honest with herself (which she didn't really want to be, since that would mean she would be partly to blame), this whole debacle could have been avoided if the four of them hadn't decided to stop at the Mead Hall as well as the kitchens. Originally, they were just going to snag some late night sweets. But Hrolf just had to mention that he wanted to see the Mead Hall, because they were Not Allowed Inside yet. Hrolf had earlier overheard Alaric talking about a way into the rafters above the hall. And then Hildy and Gunnar were curious too, and Gudrun refused to stay behind because she wanted to pick out her sweets from the kitchen and if she was left behind she'd tell Mother. So they raided the kitchen, which was a success. Unfortunately, they were then stuck carrying one jar each through the palace's corridors, a couple stairways, and a passage hidden behind curtains until they found their way up into the hall's ceiling. Upon which they discovered that the hall was nearly empty because they had taken so long finding the place while hauling around their stolen goods. Now they had thoroughly lost their way back to Father's quarters, their arms were tired, and Gudrun couldn't carry her jar anymore so the three of them had to take turns holding it (currently Hrolf's job). To make matters worse, they discovered that guards were patrolling whichever area of the palace they found themselves in. The had to hide in a little hidden passageway, just around the corner and down the hall from a patrol.
They really should've visited the Mead Hall first. It was too late now though, and Hildy had to get her siblings back before Mother found them out of bed. “We need to turn around,” she suggested before her siblings started arguing again. “I think I recognized that statue by that last staircase.”
“If you're talking about the golden statue with the winged helmet and broadsword,” a quiet voice drawled from behind the siblings, “you should know that there are five of the same statue throughout the palace, and the one by the staircase is nowhere near your rooms.”
The four of them jumped, Gudrun letting out a little sound that would have turned into a surprised shriek if Hildy hadn't clapped a hand over her mouth, and spun around to face the owner of the voice. Leaning indolently against the wall and smiling slightly, was Prince Loki. Hildy gulped.
Like Father's other friends, Loki sometimes came by and entertained her and her siblings. He could make gold sparks shoot out of his hands and made butterflies with shimmering wings that landed on her face and had just enough substance to tickle her nose. But those entertained children, and Hildy was too old to be interested by tricks anymore. Gudrun could still be enthralled by fluffy little animals that crawled up to her then dissolved into a golden mist when she touched them. But like Alaric and Einar, Hildy preferred learning how to throw solid punch from Thor (and she would never admit that liked the miniature drakes, shining every colour of the Bifrost, that glided around her head so she would get dizzy trying to keep track of the illusions).
Only this was no sociable visit. They were caught in the dead of night out of bed, and Hildy couldn't really think of any good excuses.
Ignoring their surprised reactions, Loki moved away from the wall and crouched down to their height. “I would ask what the four of you were doing out of bed, but it seems obvious from your stolen goods.” Loki inclined his head at Gunnar's jar, who then guiltily tried to hide it behind his back. “A better question would be how exactly you managed to end up in this wing of the palace. However-” he continued when Hildy opened her mouth while her mind scrambled for an explanation, “the best question would be how you intend to return to your quarters without getting caught.”
The four of them exchanged confused glances. “But you already caught us,” Gudrun said, removing Hildy's forgotten hand from her mouth. Then her eyes filled with tears. “Oh please don't get us in trouble, Prince Loki, please, it won't happen again and it was their fault anyway,” Gudrun pleaded and waved her hand in her older siblings' direction.
“Our fault! If you hadn't come along we wouldn't of had to go so slow,” Gunnar said indignantly. “Stop being so stupid.”
“Don't call her stupid,” Hildy snapped when Gudrun's face crumpled further. “You were the one that had your passageways mixed up.”
“Well at least I know left from right.”
“I know my directions perfectly. You couldn't find your way out of a sack.”
“Neither of you have any sense of direction, 'cause you both got us lost!”
“If you four are always this loud, it's wonder you weren't caught beforehand,” Loki interjected with a roll of his eyes before anyone could respond to Hrolf. Although instead of looking exasperated, the prince seemed amused. “Luckily, the guards just outside this corridor are not paying attention to disobedient children. So long as said children return to bed soon.”
“Did you magic the guards?” Gudrun asked, rubbing her wet eyes.
“It doesn't matter if the guards are magicked or not!” Hildy stomped her foot. “We can't go to bed because we're lost. And it doesn't matter if we're lost because you,” she stabbed a finger at Loki, “are going to get us in trouble with Mother and then she'll make us stay inside and do chores.” With a huff, Hildy crossed her arms and glared up at Loki. Just because he caught them out of bed didn't mean she had to feel guilty. Even if she did, a bit.
However, Loki only raised an eyebrow. In fact, he looked like he was trying to keep himself from laughing. “Actually, I 'magicked' the corridor. And you will not get in trouble, nor still be lost, if you follow this passage straight until you hit the weaving room, then take the west stairs half-way up and duck behind the silver statue, where there should be a small passageway. Take the first left, then the stairs, and you should be close to your rooms.”
Hildy felt her mouth fall open as Loki stood up. “Wait,” she said, gathering her wits as Loki started to turn away. “Could you repeat that?”
With a grin, Loki reiterated his instructions. “Also,” the prince added nonchalantly, “there is a tunnel underneath the mural in the West Gardens that leads to a crawl space just above the ice closet in the kitchens. It's perfect for hiding, and too small for adults to enter.”
Exchanging a glance with her siblings, Hildy saw that they were similarly bewildered but delighted. But she still had more questions before Loki slipped away. “How do you know how to get back? And about the kitchen? Are you gonna tell Mother about us?”
Loki smirked. “Thor and I used to love sneaking into the kitchens, until we ended up arguing over spoils a bit too loudly on our way back to our rooms while within earshot of our mother. And we stumbled upon that little tunnel quite by accident. I will have to tell you about it sometime.” Then he sauntered off down the corridor, disappearing from sight in the darkness.
Hildy looked around at her astounded brothers and sister. Then, swallowing her confusion, started to march forward, tugging Gudrun along behind her.
“Hey, where are you going?” asked Gunnar.
“Straight until I reach the weaving room. I'm not gonna stay out and get caught,” Hildy replied, Gudrun falling into step beside her. At least Gudrun had some sense, and she was the youngest.
“But what if he's lying?” Hrolf protested.
That made Hildy hesitate. Just like everyone knew that Loki did magic, they also knew that he was a liar. But why would he lie to them? About something like getting back to bed? “Well, it's better than sticking around in the dark and getting in trouble,” Hildy said and continued on. Either Loki lied and they were going to get caught, which would happen anyway if they stood there, or he was telling the truth and they could all get to bed safely.
“But everyone needs to be quiet.” Gudrun whispered, then turned back to her brothers, put a finger to her lips and made a shushing noise. Hildy smiled at her little sister's orders, especially since her brothers actually listened and started talking in murmurs to each other.
Evidently they decided that Hildy was right (and of course Hildy was right, she was the oldest of the group, if not the oldest over all, and therefore was supposed to know best), because she heard them quietly jogging to catch up. Gunnar managed to slip in beside Gudrun in the narrow corridor while Hrolf had to lag behind.
After the emerging from the stairs that led from the passage behind the statue, Hildy let out a relieved breath when she saw that they were near their residential quarters. She tugged a sleepy and stumbling Gudrun into the hallway, Hrolf and Gunnar helping to support her. Motioning her siblings onward, Hildy directed them to their rooms at the far end of the hall. With Gunnar's help, she quietly opened the door and did a quick check for Mother. The torches were still unlit, so no one must have noticed their absence. The four of them crept to their bedroom, stashing the remains of their stolen goods under Hildy's bed (because she was, of course, the most responsible one), and crawled underneath their covers.
It was only after she was starting to nod off, a satisfied feeling in her gut from a successful outing, that several things occur to her. Loki never really answered all her questions. And what was Loki doing in that corridor, in a guarded part of the palace?