Thor and Loki approached their destination with care. Their quest depended on stealth and cunning. Thor creeped forward quietly, trying not to make a sound that would alert any to their presence. He flattened himself against the wall as they drew nearer to their goal. He gestured at Loki to do the same.
Loki giggled at him.
"Shhh!" Thor hissed at his little brother. Did Loki remember nothing of what they talked about before they ventured out of the nursery? "You have to be quiet," he whispered, bending over a little to get closer to his brother's eye level. "No one can know we're here."
Loki nodded his understanding and Thor resumed his stance against the wall. Loki remained standing in the middle of the corridor. Thor gestured again for Loki to copy his movement. Loki didn't move. Thor rolled his eyes. Loki stuffed his fingers in his mouth and smiled, but didn't make a sound.
Thor shuffled along sideways until he was within reach of the open doorway set into the wall he had his back pressed against. He saw Loki start after him. Thor held his hand out to tell him to stop. Loki ignored his outstretched hand and toddled closer. Thor grabbed him when he was within reach and pulled him in close, keeping them both by the wall. Placing one hand on Loki's shoulder to keep his brother at his side, Thor inched closer to the entryway.
He was near enough he could hear voices within. Slowly, he peeked around the corner until he could see well enough inside the room. There was a clattering sound, followed by a brief lull in the sound of voices. Thor pulled back, worried he may have been spotted. The voices resumed amidst the sound of laughter. Thor couldn't make out any of the words, nor could he see any of the people within. They sounded like women. When no one came charging out into the corridor after him, he knew he was safe. No one saw him.
Loki yanked on the hem of his tunic. "S'or," he said around his fingers.
"Shhh!" Thor said. Again. Loki clearly hadn't been listening to him at all when Thor explained their quest.
Thor chanced another peek around the corner, leaning around a little further until he saw their prize. He heard the sound of laughter again, but ignored it in favour of eyeing their target. Laid out in neat rows across a massive tabletop, close enough to the huge ovens set into the nearby wall that they were probably still warm.
The apple tarts.
The harvest from the apple orchards had begun earlier this week. Thor had watched, wide-eyed, out one of the palace windows days before as bushel after bushel of apples were carted into the palace. Apples began appearing with every meal, both whole and baked as various treats. And then today a new treat of apple tarts had arrived on their meal trays. Tart, chewy apples baked with spices in a crisp golden crust and topped with a honey glaze.
Thor and Loki had each eaten two with their evening meal. They were delicious! They both wanted more. Thor thought he'd asked their nurse rather politely to have more tarts sent up from the kitchens. Hilde said they'd had enough for one day. Thor had protested vigorously. Hilde just raised her eyebrows at him and asked him if he wanted to be sent straight to bed with no playing. Thor scowled at her, but kept quiet as she herded the brothers in the direction of their bathing tub.
After they'd been washed, they changed into their bed clothes of soft leggings and warm tunics. Loki had fussed when Hilde tried to get him into his tunic. He didn't want his, he wanted one of Thor's. After grappling with the squirming toddler for a few minutes, Hilde gave up and dressed Loki in one of Thor's sleeping tunics. It swam on his small frame, hanging down past his knees with the sleeves covering his hands entirely. Hilde tied the laces at the neckline tightly enough that it at least stayed on him as he moved around. Thor thought Loki looked rather silly in it. If he turned in his sleep too much he would likely come right out of it. But Loki seemed content.
After she finished dressing Loki, Hilde busied herself cleaning up after her charges. Thor and Loki played together quietly, keeping out of her way. While she was distracted, Thor explained to Loki his plan to get more tarts for them. Loki had been all for it, promising he would do what Thor said and stay very quiet. Thor knew they'd have to move fast and silently. He looked at their bare feet and then complained to Hilde that his and Loki's feet were cold, could they please have socks to keep warm? She retrieved thick, woollen socks out of a drawer for them, letting Thor put on his own as she helped Loki, who remained cooperative. They waited until she had gathered up their meal trays and stepped out of the room. After every meal she left the nursery with their trays, bringing them to an alcove at the end of the hall for the servants to collect. She was never gone longer than a couple of minutes.
Thor sprang to his feet the moment Hilde was out the door. Dragging Loki with him he hurried to the door, looking out to make sure her back was to them. Seeing that it was they scrambled down the hall in the opposite direction. They turned this way and that through the hallways, occasionally sliding in their socks, until they reached an unobtrusive door Thor knew was an entrance the servants used to come and go into their family's rooms. They paused as Thor carefully opened the door and poked his head out into the corridor. He saw no one, but heard heavy footsteps close by, likely the guards making their rounds. At the end of the corridor nearest the door was a short flight of stairs that Thor knew led down in the direction of the kitchens. He and Loki made a run for it. They slowed upon reaching the stairs, Thor held onto Loki's hand tightly as he helped his brother carefully descend down the steps. When they were on level ground again, they rushed forward until they were close to the entrance to the kitchens.
Loki tugged on him again, "S'or."
Thor now realized he should have snuck out of the nursery by himself. Honestly, did Loki want them to be caught? Their whole plan hinged on getting more tarts and making it back inside their family residence before Hilde raised the alarm. By now she was searching the halls and rooms around the nursery for them. If they stayed out of her sight much longer she would go inform their parents.
There was another tug on his hem. Thor sighed. He gently extracted Loki's fingers from his mouth before whispering, "What?"
"Yes, we're almost there. You have to be patient. And quiet. Shhh." Thor pressed his index finger to his lips, hoping this time Loki would heed him.
Loki blinked at him before cramming his fingers back into his mouth and giggling.
Thor could hear laughter and voices in the other room again. He almost groaned out loud. It sounded like more voices than before! How could he distract them all enough to get to the tarts?
He looked down at Loki. He was sizing up his little brother, wondering how he might use him as an effective distraction when he heard heavy footsteps behind them. He darted glances both ways down the corridor without seeing anything.
The guards on rounds, Thor thought. They would have to find a place to hide. Using a hand gesture that clearly told Loki he was to remain exactly where he was, Thor set off back along the way they'd come to scout a good hiding place for them. It only took him a few moments before he found a recess in the wall containing a golden statue. There was more than enough room for them to crawl in behind the statue. He rushed back to get Loki. He came to a stop so abruptly he had to put a hand out to the wall to stop himself from falling forward onto his face.
Where was Loki?
Thor looked around the corridor, frantic. He couldn't see him anywhere!
"Loki," Thor hissed. "Loki!"
There was more laughing voices coming from the kitchens. And the footsteps sounded like they were coming down the stairs now. Thor was seized by indecision for a moment before scrambling to the hiding place he'd found. Cramming himself behind the statue, Thor waited, biting at his lip.
He'd lost his little brother. He was going to be in so much trouble!
He heard the steps getting closer. He pressed further into the alcove. As soon as the guards passed by, he would have to search for Loki. They would have to give up on their tarts and return to their rooms. There was no way Hilde would wait any longer without alerting someone.
"Ah, there you are, young prince. Hilde, I found one!"
Thor gaped at the face of the guard who was bent over at the waist and peering in at him. He didn't understand how his hiding place could have failed him so completely. He almost didn't hear the other footsteps rapidly approaching until Hilde was shouldering the guard aside and reaching in to drag Thor out of the alcove. Hilde held him in front of her, gripping him by the arm, as she glared down at him.
"Thor, you gave me a terrible fright," Hilde said sternly. "You know better to sneak off! And just where is your brother?"
Thor felt his mouth open and close without making any sound. He looked helplessly at Hilde. How could he tell her he didn't know?
"Hilde, I found the other one," the same guard called from further down the corridor.
Thor barely had time to register what the guard said before Hilde was dragging him along in her wake as she marched down the corridor and into the kitchens. The guard remained behind them, standing by the entryway.
Thor could only stare in disbelief at the sight in front of him.
Loki was seated on a high stool next to a long table in the centre of the room. He was surrounded on all sides by an assortment of kitchen workers, servants and a couple of guards. His sleeves had been rolled up enough for his hands to poke through. He had a napkin tucked into the front of Thor's tunic with a glass of milk in front of him.
And a plate full of apple tarts.
Loki looked over at him and waved, an apple tart gripped in his small fist.
"I knew it," Thor heard Hilde mutter under her breath.
"Hilde, the little prince is so hungry. Isn't it your charge to feed the poor child so he doesn't have to search out his own food?" one of the kitchen women called out. A few of the women cackled in response.
Thor saw Hilde press her lips together and narrow her eyes in response. He gulped, hoping she never had cause to look at him in such a manner.
"I apologize for the intrusion upon your work," Hilde said stiffly. "I'll return the princes to their nursery."
One of the women waved her hand. "Oh no intrusion at all. We were making wagers as to how they intended to work their way in here to get the tarts."
"Yes," said another. "Finally, the little one just strolled right in, calm as can be, and asked for some."
They laughed again. Thor was wondering how they knew he and Loki were even there when his eyes fell on the opposite wall. There was a host of huge, polished platters lined up along the wall, the biggest Thor had ever seen. They were next to another long table covered in goblets and tableware. Two women sat at the table, each running soft cloths over the surface of the item she held. As Thor looked at the platters he could clearly see the guard still standing out in the doorway reflected in the shiny metal surface.
Hilde bustled forward, still gripping Thor's arm, to where Loki was seated. There was a flurry of movement as one of the serving maids helped Hilde clean Loki up and lift him off his seat and place him down on the floor. Hilde held her hand out for Loki who took it without complaint, his sleeves once against hanging down past his fingertips.
"Time for bed, both of you," Hilde said to the brothers. "Say goodnight."
Thor and Loki both said goodnight and were greeting with a chorus of 'goodnight' and 'sleep well' and 'good dreams' from the group as Hilde led them away.
She walked them briskly back along the corridors, the guard following them until they reached the royal family's living quarters. She released them both when they were back in the nursery.
"Go to bed, both of you," she said. "And Thor, first thing in the morning, I will be telling your mother all about this little adventure of yours. I hope you think twice before dragging your little brother off on some ill-conceived undertaking again."
Thor cast his eyes down at his socked feet as he crossed the room to his bed. He didn't want to think what his mother would have to say to him the following day. He got into his bed, hoping there was a chance when he awoke the next morning Hilde will have forgotten all about it.
"Loki, your own bed. Loki, no, go to your bed."
As Thor settled, he watched Hilde trying in vain to coax Loki away from Thor's bed and toward his own. Loki whined and fussed as Hilde gently tried to guide him to his own bed. When Loki looked like he was about to cry, Thor spoke up, "Hilde, it's all right. I don't mind if he sleeps with me tonight."
Hilde sighed. "Very well, but Loki must learn his bed is for him and yours is for you. Otherwise, he will be very confused when you are old enough to have a separate room of your own to sleep in."
"I know. I'll help teach him, I promise." Thor threw his covers back to make room as Loki climbed into his bed. Loki quickly snuggled into Thor's side with a contented sigh. Hilde pulled the covers up over both of them and tucked them in. She pressed a kiss to each of their foreheads.
"Goodnight, sweet princes. Sleep well." Hilde crossed the room to the farthest corner where her rocking chair sat close to her own bed and under the one still burning light. Thor's back was to her and he listened as she settled in her chair. He heard the rustling of pages as she opened a book to read as she did every night after putting them to bed.
Thor sighed deeply as he closed his eyes. He felt heavy with the disappointment of his failed quest. It all went so terribly. They'd been caught. Hilde was going to tell his mother. And Thor didn't even get another tart. It wasn't fair.
There was a tug on his tunic.
Thor opened his eyes and looked questioningly at Loki.
Loki carefully pulled one arm free of the covers, keeping his arm concealed from Hilde by the cover of Thor's body. He shook his arm until his fist popped free from the oversized sleeve. Loki pushed his fist at Thor and opened his hand.
"Tort, S'or," Loki whispered.
Thor stared in disbelief. He reached out and took the tart from Loki's outstretched hand. He looked at Loki's peaceful face and smiled his thank you. Loki smiled back, his hand disappearing back inside his sleeve as he burrowed back down into the covers and closed his eyes.
The tart was half squashed from Loki clutching it all the way back to their rooms. It looked nothing like the tarts they'd eaten with their meal or the ones he'd seen laid out in the kitchen. Thor cupped it in his hands and took a careful bite, chewed and swallowed. He decided nothing had ever tasted better.