"Suppose we have only dreamed or made up all those things. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies playing a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow."
(C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair)
Years of exploring the palace’s shadows and forgotten corners had made Loki adept at sneaking out. There were gaps between bars and walls that Thor—already too broad, despite his tender years—could no longer slip through. Within minutes of creeping out of his room, Loki was free. Free from the tutors who called his cleverness diabolical, free from the servants who ascribed evil intentions to his most innocent accidents, free from the laughter of Thor’s new friends.
Of all the hurts he was nursing today, the last one ached the most. Loki had looked out the window that morning and seen Thor giving Fandral a helmet to wear while they played. A helmet Thor had made himself and given to Loki. Lent it to Fandral as though it meant nothing. As though Fandral had not insulted Loki just the day before. As though Loki meant no more to Thor than any of his new friends.
He knew where everyone would expect him to go. First, they would check the library. They’d send the servants to scour the darkest corners where the oldest and most interesting books were shelved. They would search the highest towers, for Loki had been known to climb up there with Thor on occasion to watch the sunsets and dangle paper birds in front of people’s windows. By the time they’d fruitlessly searched all his usual haunts, it would be night, and the whole of Asgard would be in a state of panic.
It had better be. Anything less would be proof irrefutable that none of them cared.
Eventually they would ask Heimdall, but only as a last resort, for his gifts were meant for greater tasks than locating runaway children.
Once he was out of sight of the palace guards, he ran down to the fishing pier as fast as his little legs would carry him. The tiny sailboat he had noticed a few weeks ago still bobbed and pulled against its restraints.
While father had taught both him and Thor the theory of sailing, this was Loki’s first time trying his hand. Moving the boom proved harder exercise than he anticipated, a drain meant for arms longer and burlier than his. However, his temper drove him forward and gave him strength he didn’t know he had. His desperate, inaudibly prayed desire to remain unnoticed was granted; he and his little boat slipped out of the marina unremarked.
It took a couple of hours to cross the bay, but the winds were in his favor. Soon, the grey peaks of the barren island that he’d picked out as today’s destination came into view. There was no dock along the flinty beach, but he threw a rope and tied it to the very sharpest rock on the shore.
Despite its emptiness, this place was legendary. Loki’s nurse delighted in telling him frightening tales, and Loki had always lapped them up. These islands were haunted, she said. Nothing had ever lived here, not even plants. Yet the beaches and hillsides were littered with skeletons of men and unknown beasts. And there had been heard voices, impossible ghosts. Legend told of sailors who had stopped for a rest on their way to the capital city and had never been seen again. Strange things had always happened here, to the point where no one dared to stop any more.
Loki would show them. They—well, Fandral—had called him a coward, a skinny little weakling, but Loki was not afraid of anything.
He wandered around, but there was nothing to see. Just rocks, rocks and more rocks, in boring formations and jutting over cave entrances. It was all exactly as the stories had told, except less interesting.
It soon began to rain. He could see that the clouds went on for miles; this downpour would not cease any time soon. He ran into a cave to hide. He wished he had paid more attention to the lesson the gamekeeper had once given him and Thor about building fires from flint and matches. It was cold in here, and dark, too. He couldn’t read the lovely books he had brought or play with his toys. The rain had made the water too rough for his beginner sailing skills, so he couldn’t return home. And there weren’t even any ghosts to boast to Thor about, nothing impressive about this adventure at all.
Everything was terrible.
And what if they weren’t looking for him? What if he froze to death here, all alone? Loki’s imagination, with nothing else to stimulate it, cavorted in dark directions. They would find nothing but his carcass. An unidentifiable skeleton like the one outside the cave entrance.
“There has never been a boy more miserable than me,” he complained bitterly, from his very depths. “Never, in all of eternity, nor in any of the realms, has there been or will there be anyone more unfortunate.”
The strength of his despair shocked even him. He fell down, suddenly exhausted and dizzy. As if he lacked reasons to feel miserable, now he had fallen ill, too, and the healers were too far away to help.
Shaking with this fit, or whatever it was, he whispered to himself again, even more fervently this time, “I defy the universe itself to show me anyone who could ever feel more wretched.”
A new wave of nausea accompanied his words, but something distracted him from the pain. Through his watering eyes he spied a bright spot farther along in the cave that he hadn’t noticed before. Daylight coming in from a different entrance, perhaps. It took a few moments for the fit to pass, but once he could walk again, he reached for his things and went to explore. It took only a minute to traverse the narrow corridor of rock and come out on the other side.
The sight that greeted him was markedly different from the side of the island he had landed on.
Below the rocky hillside he was standing on, the landscape transformed into rolling green fields that cascaded down to a beach. In opposition to all the books and stories about these uninhabited islands, Loki could see an entire settlement in the valley.
It wasn’t raining here, but that came as little surprise. Loki remembered his lessons on the phenomena of weather patterns around mountain ranges. It was a fascinating one that even Thor had sat up for.
On his way down to the delicious looking fields before him, Loki heard a whimper. He turned this way and that, trying to spot the animal. A small boy of about his age sat crouched behind a tree with his face buried between his knees, in a position not unlike the one Loki had assumed in the cave mere moments ago. All Loki could see of him was tousled black hair and a trickle of blood running from a scrape on his shin that had not yet scabbed.
The sight of another dark-haired boy was enough to make him stop. Other than himself, and Sif after he had cut her hair, and Heimdall, almost everyone in Asgard was blond.
“Hello?” he said.
The boy looked up. Tears ran down his face as swiftly and as steadily as blood ran down his leg.
Loki immediately turned up his nose in scorn.
(Never mind that he had just finished having a good cry himself.)
“Where’d you come from?” the boy asked, quickly wiping his eyes and getting to his feet.
“The other side of the mountain. There’s a cave that takes you through.”
The boy looked up at the rocks. “The other side? It’s a cliff. There’s nothing there but the sea.”
The boy was a simpleton, Loki could see, with only the barest knowledge of geography. Never mind that Loki himself hadn’t known until a minute ago that there was a settlement here, and would have said the same about this side of the island.
“I would hardly call it a sea,” Loki said haughtily. “It only took me a couple of hours to sail here from the palace.”
“Yes, of course.”
The boy looked at him for a minute, befuddled, and then his eyes traveled to Loki’s traveling bag.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“These are my things,” Loki replied, not sure what exactly the question was.
“Never seen a bag like that before. Show me?”
Loki had always enjoyed displaying his treasures, but he lacked opportunities to do so. He had no friends besides Thor, who had not only already seen all of Loki’s possessions, but also had duplicates of his own.
They sat together and Loki took the boy through the life necessities he had placed into the small satchel for the day: books, sweet biscuits, a cloak, the ornamental dagger his uncle had given him, puzzle-based toys, interesting rocks, a few flasks of juice from the pitcher outside his room. The honest wonder with which the boy greeted each item mollified Loki. Usually, it was Thor who held others in such rapt attention and awe. By the time the boy had cooed and admired all of these treasures, Loki’s temper had almost returned to normal—still stormy, but on the wane.
“What’s that?” the boy asked one last time.
The bag was empty. The boy’s acquisitive eyes were now fixed on the shiny object sticking out of Loki's pocket.
“Oh, this?” Loki scoffed. “It’s a watch, of course.”
“Never seen one like that before. How’s it work?”
Loki took the poor ignorant through the mechanisms. It told minutes, weeks, years, seasons, cardinal directions, everything, in a constantly rotating, endless stream of wheels and pictures, like every other watch Loki had ever seen.
“Where’d you get something like that?” the boy breathed. “Did you swipe it?”
“Why would I steal it? It’s nothing special. You should see the ones Father has.”
“Looks pretty special to me. I don’t have anything near as neat as you’ve got.”
“What's in that bag tied to your belt loop?” Loki had noticed this some time ago and had been itching with curiosity about it.
“Oh, my marbles and jacks. Most valuable things I own. Wanna see?”
They were very pretty stones, even prettier than Loki’s, he noted jealously, and the game as described sounded very amusing. Never before had Loki encountered someone, other than Thor, who possessed something he wanted so desperately. But this boy, with his unwashed face, badly cut hair and thin, ugly clothing, must have been destitute indeed. Not even Loki could quite begrudge him his one treasure in life.
“I want to play,” he demanded, although that was not entirely what he wanted.
The boy taught him a trick of the wrist that, with practice, would make the ball go where he wanted.
“I’m James, by the way,” he said as they played.
“What a pleasure to meet you,” Loki replied stiffly, as he had been taught to say when subjects greeted him. Never before today had he meant the words.
They played for a minute more before James blurted out, “Well, aren’t you gonna tell me your name?”
“Don’t you already know it?”
“‘Course not. I wouldn’t ask otherwise.”
“I am Loki Odinson.”
Loki expected James to blush and kneel in embarrassment for failing to recognize one of the heirs of the Realm Eternal, but nothing of the sort happened.
“Loki? What kind of name is that?”
“Mine. Haven’t you heard of me?”
James shrugged. “Never.”
“This is truly a backward little settlement. I wonder if you even pay your levies to the crown. When I return home, I will tell Father to reassert his dominion over this rebellious territory.”
James stared at him, looking stupid again. Then he laughed. Stupidity had never looked so pleasant.
“You know, I don’t understand half the things you say, but you’re all right.”
Somehow, merely ‘all right’ coming from James’s lips sounded more complimentary than the highest praise Loki had ever heard Thor receive.
“You’re all right, too.”
James’s little half-smile melted the last bit of sulk from Loki’s heart.
“Why were you crying before?” Loki asked.
The smile faltered and he regretted having said anything.
“My dad died a few weeks ago. My Ma calls me her brave little soldier because I haven’t cried once. But I couldn’t keep it in forever. Came up here today where no one’d see me.”
Loki, who, even in his worst moods, loved his father, could not conceive of such a horror. He remembered his dare back in the cave, his challenge to the universe to show him someone who could ever be more wretched than himself. Yes, here on the other side of the mountain, lived such a boy. Poor and dirty and lacking a father.
“I am sorry to hear it,” Loki said, stiffly again. He meant it more kindly than it came out, but he had little practice in calming the grief of others. Usually, it was others’ task to quell his tears.
“It gets worse,” James continued. “We’re only here in Italy because he was in the Army. So now we have to leave. Me and my Ma and my sister.”
“You have a sister?” Loki asked.
James pulled a face. “Yeah, she’s really stupid.”
“I have a brother. He, too, can be… very stupid.”
They shared anecdotes about their elder siblings, voicing frustration and affection in equal measure. Loki didn’t understand half the situations James described, but he could piece together the gist of the stories well enough, so he hid his confusion and nodded along. James was less precious about what others thought of him and asked embarrassingly obvious questions without shame.
“Wish I’d thought of this game,” James said much later. “It’s a winner.”
“What game?” Loki asked.
“This one. Your made-up palace on the other side of the mountain, across a bay that doesn’t exist. I know you’re probably just from the British base on the other side of the river. But this is more fun.”
“It is no fiction,” Loki persisted. “Come, I'll show you.”
“No can do. It’s getting late. If I’m not home for supper soon, I’ll catch it. I bet you will, too.”
“Not I. At least, no more than I already will. I ran away, you see. A few hours more will make no difference.”
James whistled. “For real?”
“Once they inform Heimdall that I am gone, someone will come fetch me, rather soon, I wager.”
“You’re cool as a cucumber,” James said, impressed. “Running away, sailing around, climbing up mountains.”
Loki repressed a pleased wriggle. “I like to plan things.”
He kept to himself the truth that the best part of the day had been entirely unplanned—this visit, this afternoon spent with James.
“What are you gonna do until they come get you?” James asked. “Those biscuits you’ve got look good, but they wouldn’t be enough for me.”
“I don’t know,” Loki replied, seeing James’s point. “I suppose I ought to go back into the cave and wait.”
“Why don’t you come home with me? My ma won’t mind another kid at the table, not if I tell her you’re lost, which it sounds like you are. If your people can track you to the top of the mountain, I’m sure they can track you to our house. And in the meanwhile, we can keep playing.”
“I would like that.”
Together, they made their way down to the village. It was a strange place, with a different sort of architecture than Loki had ever seen. He was too young and sickly to have visited much beyond Asgard’s capital city, but he had seen pictures in books about all the different kinds of dwellings across the realms. None of them had looked anything like these, though.
James’s house was exponentially smaller than any Loki had ever visited, but had a warm, comfortable, very foreign sort of charm.
“Ma? Becca?” James called. When no one answered, he stood in the middle of the room with his hands akimbo. “Don’t know where they could be. They’re always here.”
From outside, they heard a grown-up woman calling for James, followed a knock on the door. Loki instinctively hid as James went to open it.
“I saw the light come on in here and came over,” he heard a woman say.
“Hi, Signora Bentivoglio. Do you know where Becca and my mother are?” James’s voice held a strange inflection. Loki, listening in, could understand the words just the same, but both James and the woman sounded slightly different in a way that he could not pinpoint, like a familiar melody played in a new key.
“She went to make arrangements for the move, a couple of towns over. She took Becca with her and asked me to keep a look out for you, since you’d run off. But I just heard from Signora Alezzi that there’s been a problem with the trains. No way for them to get back tonight. I expect you need someone to scrounge up some supper for you.”
“That would be awfully kind, Signora.”
Loki continued to listen while James and the woman negotiated arrangements. She had expected James to take his meal in her house, but James affected his most devastatingly sad manner, digging his toe into the floor and flopping his long hair over his limpid blue eyes. Peering from behind the curtain, Loki had never seen anyone work this kind of magic before. The blowsy signora practically swooned, letting James talk her into thinking that it was her idea to give him a double portion of supper, into thinking that letting James eat it all alone in his own house was a wonderful plan. Together, they exited to get provisions from her kitchen, leaving Loki alone and amazed.
A few minutes later, James returned with a large, steaming pot. Together, he and Loki ladled long, skinny strips of something white into bowls, topped with a chunky, brownish-red sauce.
“Why were you speaking so strangely just now?” Loki asked.
“To the signora? We were speaking Italian. I reckon you didn’t understand a word.”
“Of course I did. Every single one. Why wouldn’t I?”
James raised a quizzical eyebrow, as though he believed Loki to be lying, but didn’t want to insult him by saying so out loud. Instead, he explained, “My ma has always made us live in the villages instead of the army bases. Says it’s good to get to know the locals, pick up some of the language, unlike all the other Army brats. I’m real good at languages. Everybody says so. It’s why all the ladies in all the villages we’ve ever lived in love me. And we’ve lived in a lot of places. First France and then Germany and now here.”
The food on this side of the mountain could not have been more different from what Loki was accustomed to. He intended to ask the cooks to prepare some traditional peasant dishes one night soon, for he vastly preferred this meal to most of the formal banquets he had attended. James showed Loki the trick of swirling the strips around the tines of the eating implement and slurping it all into his mouth. They ate messily, competed for the loudest and longest slurp, put their elbows on the table and their feet up on the empty seats. Delightful. Loki never been allowed to be this impolite at mealtimes. James said this may be no palace, but his ma was just as strict as any queen, so it was a treat for him, too.
After washing up (Signora Bentivoglio would be very angry if her pot was brought back dirty), James and Loki stayed up late playing marbles. When their wrists tired, James showed Loki bits of hard paper, each with different numbers, and some with faces. The myriad permutations of games that could be played with them was astounding.
The signora returned. Loki scrambled to hide again.
“To bed with you, young man,” she scolded James, “or I’ll tell your mother you were up until all hours.”
“I can’t believe no one has come for me yet,” Loki said when she had gone again.
“I’m glad they haven’t. That just means you can stay over. Come on. I’ll find you some pajamas.”
James’s bed was much narrower than Loki’s back home, but even so, it was wide enough to allow two skinny little boys to lie side by side. In the dark, James reached his hand across the space between them. Loki let his fingers be found.
“Today’s the first good day I’ve had since dad died,” James said. “I wish I’d met you before. It’s rotten timing.”
“What do you mean?” Loki asks.
“We have to move, like I was telling you before. That’s what my ma was arranging today. We’re leaving for New York pretty soon.”
“Where is that?”
“You’ve never heard of New York?” James sounded incredulous.
“You’ve never heard of Asgard.”
“Yeah, I guess we’re even.”
“Is it far?” Loki asked.
“Yeah. Really far. As far as can be. The other side of the world.”
The thought was insupportable and Loki wracked his brain for a solution. “What if I ask Father to procure your mother a position somewhere closer to here, in the capital city?”
“What, in Rome?”
“No, you idiot. In Asgard. Where I’m from. That way, you won’t have to leave.”
“It won’t work. The arrangements are already set. And Ma’s got family in New York. She actually wants to go back. It’s a nice offer, though. Thanks.”
Already, Loki could feel the tempest of disappointment brewing in his heart. He had finally made a friend, one for his own, who looked at him the way everyone looked at Thor. He had made a friend, and now that friend was to leave him. The misery he had been running from threatened to catch up with him.
“Perhaps we can see one another again before you go,” Loki suggested.
“Sure. How about Wednesday?”
“Wednesday?” Loki’s first guess was that the word was the name of the hillside.
James didn’t seem to understand Loki’s confusion. “Yeah, three days from now. We’ll meet where we met today, by that big tree up the hill. First thing in the morning.”
“I’ll be there. No matter how much trouble I’m in when I get back. I’ll sneak out again if I have to.”
“Wish I had your pluck.”
And there it was again: that thrilling sense that someone thought Loki was the bravest of all boys. After Fandral’s insults the day before, this gratification was as intoxicating as the mead the palace guards drank after hours.
Loki had to find a way to keep James. He had to.
Despite their sweaty palms, they continued to hold hands, and drifted off to sleep.
A crowing noise disturbed Loki much earlier than he’d ever been woken. At first he wondered what he was doing in this hovel, on this strange bed made not of feathers, but of metal springs that creaked when he moved. Then he turned over, saw James sleeping next to him, and remembered.
He knew he should return to the cave. James had to go to school and wouldn’t be available to play. Pretty as this village was, he had little interest in exploring it alone. By now, the rain on the other side of the mountain should have stopped. He could sail home and make everyone feel terrible for having abandoned him.
“James,” he whispered, shaking his friend to a drowsy half-wakefulness. “I have to go.”
“Mmmhhh?” James mumbled without opening his eyes.
“Three days hence, yes?” Loki asked urgently, wanting to ensure the date would be kept.
“Wednesday, yeah.” James rolled over again and continued to snore lightly.
“James,” Loki said again with a nudge.
“May I borrow the jacks and marbles? Just until Wednesday. I want to show Thor how to play.”
“Sure.” Given how deeply James loved his marbles, this loan meant a great deal. “Hey, can I borrow your watch? I want to see how the day-tracker thing works. We can make it a trade.”
“If you like.” Loki didn’t care. He was getting the much greater treasure in this deal.
“You swear you’ll be back, right? I’m gonna need those marbles when I go to New York.”
Impulsively, Loki pressed the watch and the very biggest and prettiest of the marbles into James’s palm. He slapped his hand down on top, joining them and trapping the objects between them. He intertwined their fingers and squeezed so hard that James winced. The desperation that had rent him at the thought of James's departure returned, even more violently.
“I swear, by… by everything,” Loki said, shaking with more feeling than he had ever roused—urgent, essential, burning feeling that outstripped his already sizable vocabulary. “I swear I’ll come back and we’ll see each other again. And now you swear.”
“You sure are dramatic,” James said. “But okay, I swear. By everything.”
At the words, a light began to emanate from their joined palms. The objects grew hot between them, burning into their skin, but Loki did not let go, not even when James whimpered in pain. In a moment, the light died down again.
“Woah,” James marveled. “What was that?”
“I have no idea,” Loki replied. He had assumed it was a usual property of the marble, but apparently not, judging by James’s reaction. Whatever had happened, he felt terribly drained, as he had back in the cave. It took him a moment to recover his breath and strength.
“Well,” James said when Loki was finally able to walk again. “See ya, Loki.”
Loki passed only a couple of grown-ups on his way through the village. It was still dark out and they were too tired to heed the little boy dashing madly through the streets towards the fields. He ran all the way up the hill to where the grass stopped growing, replaced by rocks, and then even further up. It took a combination of hands and sure-footedness to make his way back to where he remembered having come out. In the slanting dawn, the trees all looked the same. He tied a piece of his shirt to the closest tree so that James would be able to find the spot.
When Loki got back to the cave, he poked his head outside. It was still raining. He was surprised the storm had lasted this long, but it explained why no one had come for him. After such a nice day and night, Loki was feeling more charitable. The water looked terribly choppy. Perhaps too choppy for any of the boats in the harbor. Perhaps they had Heimdall keeping an eye on him and knew he had been well-fed and well-sheltered, and thus were a little less worried.
Despite having nothing to do except practice playing marbles by himself in the dirt, the day passed uncommonly quickly. It felt like only a couple of hours until nightfall. The falling darkness encouraged him to drift off into a nap.
The sound of boots and clanking armour shattered his slumber.
“He is here!”
Still asleep, Loki felt himself swept up into loving arms and cradled to a neck. He couldn’t see her, but he could smell that this was his mother, come for him at last.
“My darling, what are you doing here? We’ve been so worried.”
“Was so lonely,” Loki mumbled, too sleepy to answer in full.
“Never do that again, do you hear me? Never. I couldn’t bear it another time. What if it had gotten too dark to look for you? I can’t imagine an entire night spent not knowing where you were.”
“But I was gone all night.”
“Where are the healers?” the queen called. “We must get him to the healers. My Loki is raving.”
He was too cold and sleepy to protest, so he let himself be coddled. He barely remembered the sail home. He barely registered being taken back to the palace, his mother and the healers clucking over him for hours.
He woke in his own bed. Thor bounded into his room and jumped on him.
“Oh, Thor, go away,” Loki said, burying his head under the pillow.
“You’d better pretend to be as sick as Mother thinks you are,” Thor whispered quickly, “or else there’s nothing that will stop you from catching it from Father. Here, I brought you that hot compress you lent me last time I had to feign a fever.”
Loki was wise enough to accept the help that was offered him, so he clutched the compress between his hands and rested his face on it. Soon, he was honestly warm, sweating and clammy to the touch.
As he lay there, Thor nattered at him about the ruckus that had been made when they’d found out he was missing.
“I can’t believe you went to the Haunted Hills. And all alone. What was it like? Did you see any ghosts?”
“There aren’t any ghosts. Those are only stupid stories. But I did find a village on the other side of the mountain.”
“The people there are very poor, but it is such a pretty place. They don’t know anything about us here in the city, just as we’ve never heard anything about them.”
“That can’t be right, Loki. I’ve sailed all around those islands with Father, that time you were too ill to accompany us. There’s nothing there. No villages.”
“I tell you there is.” There was little Loki hated more than being accused of a lie he wasn’t actually telling. Hotly and ill-advisedly, he continued, “I’ll take you if you don’t believe me. I’m to go back on Wednesday.”
“What is Wednesday?”
“It’s what you call ‘three days hence’ in their peasant idiom.” That reminded Loki of something. “Why did Mother think I had only been gone a few hours?”
Thor furrowed his eyebrows. “Because you had. We realized you were gone at supper time, asked Heimdall where you were, and then Mother went to fetch you straightaway. And what do you mean, you’re going back?”
Loki discounted Thor’s words. He very clearly didn’t know what he was talking about, as usual. But more pressing than the confusion was Loki’s impulse to hold his secret where no one could take it from him. But then he remembered the marbles in his pocket. The entire reason for borrowing them had been to play with Thor. He saw now that he could not do so without telling him everything. Affection for Thor and a desire to best his brother at a new game triumphed over his secretive nature.
He watched with delight as his brother’s eyes grew wider and wider with each word of the tale.
“Either this is the most elaborate and tiresome of your lies,” Thor said at the end, “or you have had an adventure for the ages.”
“You cannot tell a soul. They’d never let me go back if they knew.”
“I won’t. I promise. But in exchange, you have to take me with you. I want to meet this friend of yours.”
The usual panic immediately set in. What if James preferred Thor to Loki? Thor had enough of his own friends. He was not allowed to have Loki’s, too. It was too late to refuse, however. Once having taken an idea into his head, Thor was incapable of letting go. Loki tried to tell himself that of course James would continue to look upon Loki as the more interesting of the two.
“Oh, all right,” Loki grumbled. “You can come with me. But if you get us caught, I’ll…”
“I haven’t thought of what yet, but it will be horrible, I promise you.”
Thor grinned. “If you say so. Now, I’d better go before anyone finds me here. And remember, you’ve caught a terrible cold. Like when you were sick last summer. And the summer before that. And the…”
“Yes, yes, I know. I’m always ill. You don’t need to remind me.”
Thor was correct. Instead of being punished for having thrown the entire palace into alarm, Loki’s ‘illness’ meant that he got away with merely a scolding and some nasty medicines to drink.
On the appointed day, Thor pretended to have caught it, too. They asked to spend the day in Loki’s sickroom together, undisturbed. After breakfast they crept down to the shore and stole the same little boat. The travel went much more smoothly this time with someone there to help Loki with the ropes and the boom.
Thor quailed a little as they tied up the boat on the island’s beach. “Are you sure about this?”
“It’s a little late to be afraid, you oaf. I’ve told you. There aren’t any ghosts.”
For perhaps the first time ever, Thor trailed dutifully behind Loki.
“I don’t see anything,” Thor said when they entered the cave. “You said there was a light, didn’t you?”
“Perhaps it’s raining there this time, so the sunshine isn’t coming through.”
It really was curious what a difficult time he was having finding the passageway. It had been so obvious before. Loki was already impatient, as Thor had slowed him down on their way out of the palace. He was already slightly late for his appointment.
“You’ve had your joke, Loki,” Thor eventually said. “Come off it now. There’s no opening here, there never was. Just as there isn’t any village on the other side of the mountain. I don’t know why I listened to you, even after I’d already seen for myself. You brought me here to frighten me, didn’t you? Or was it to get me into trouble?”
“There was a passage here, I swear! I don’t know what’s happened.”
“This is one of your rottoner pranks. And now we’ve missed leftovers from last night’s feast. I’m hungry.”
Thor stomped out of the cave. Loki let him go; he was too busy still feeling the walls for the passageway. But Thor was right. There was nothing there, not even signs of anyone having come in and boarded up the hole.
If it hadn’t been for the marbles that sat in his pocket, he would have felt sure he’d dreamed the whole thing up.
Eventually, he followed Thor out and they sailed back to the mainland in stony silence, with Thor out of sorts, Loki baffled, and both of them embarrassed, though for different reasons. No one found out that they’d slipped away, but Thor was so annoyed that he didn’t speak to Loki for a week.
Loki hated being made to look foolish. A prank was only fun if he was the one executing it, but today it was as though both of them had been placed on the wrong end of one. And now his only friend was gone.
He wondered if they’d ever meet again, but given how far away and remote this New York place sounded, the chances seemed slim.