VERY EARLY ONE SUMMER MORNING, Odin, Loki and Honir crossed into Midgard, happy in one another’s company, and in- tent upon exploring some part of the earth not already known to them.
In the pale blue, almost pale green light that gives an edge to everything, the three friends crossed a desolate reach of grit, patrolled only by the winds. Before men in Midgard had stirred and woken, the gods were striding over scrubby, undulating ground. Then they tramped round a great mass of spiky, dead, dark rock, and headed for the summit of a conical mountain.
All day they trekked and talked and, in the evening, they followed the course of a rapid, milky river from a glacier down into a valley — a jigsaw of fields, yellow and brown and green.
Odin, Loki and Honir had not brought any food with them and were beginning to feel very uneasy about it when they had the luck to come across a herd of oxen. While Loki sized them up, chose one and killed it, Odin and Honir gathered fallen branches from a grove of stunted oaks and made a fire. Then they cut up the ox into huge pieces and put the pieces into the heart of the fire.
The smell ravished the gods; they could barely wait to eat. As soon as they thought the joints were roasted, they scattered the fire and pulled the meat out of the flames.
‘It’s not ready,’ said Odin, surprised. ‘We must be so hungry that a little time seemed long to us.’
Loki and Honir raked up the brands and put the meat back into the fire again.
Suddenly a chill wind channelled down the valley. Although the sun still loped across the western sky with the wolf at its heels, all the heat had drained out of the summer day. The three gods wrapped their cloaks around them and sat and waited.
`Do you think it’s ready?’ asked Honir. ‘What do you think? Shall I find out?’
‘One of these days, you’ll choke on your own uncertainty,’ Loki said, leaping to his feet and scattering the fire for a second time. ‘It must be cooked by now.’
Odin took a piece out of the flames. ‘It’s still not ready,’ he said. And it ought to be.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with this fire,’ Honir said.
‘And yet our dinner is as raw now as it was to begin with,’ said Loki, looking at the meat and grimacing.
‘Well,’ said Odin, ‘something is working against it.’
‘Something sitting up here,’ said a voice from above them.
The three gods at once looked up into the leafy branches of the oak tree above the fire. They looked and they saw an eagle sitting there, and it wasn’t a small one.
‘Let me eat my fill,’ said the eagle to the three upturned faces, ‘and your ox will be cooked.’
The gods conferred and were of one mind. ‘Since we too want to eat tonight,’ Odin told the eagle, ‘we agree. There is nothing else we can do.’ Then the eagle screeched. It flapped its immense wings, swooped down from the tree and settled over the fire. At once it snatched up both the shoulders and both parts of the rump as well. Then it eyed the gods and, crouching at the root of the oak, began to eat. Loki was so angry that he raised his staff and rammed it into the bird’s body. The eagle was thrown off balance and dropped the meat. It screeched again and took to the air. One end of the staff was firmly lodged in the eagle’s back; and, to his alarm, Loki found that he was unable to let go of the other. He pulled and twisted and yelled to no purpose. His hands were stuck to the staff.
The eagle flew at great speed and it took care to fly close enough to the ground to make sure that Loki did not have a smooth ride. The Trickster was dragged across the floor of Midgard. His knees and ankles hanged into boulders; his legs and feet were scratched by gorse bushes and thorns until they were bleeding.
‘Mercy!’ shouted Loki.
The eagle took no notice. It dragged Loki on his backside across a glacier until he was all but skinned.
‘Mercy!’ yelled Loki again. He thought his outstretched arms were going to be wrenched from their sockets.
‘Only,’ said the eagle, rising to give Loki a little respite, ‘only if you will swear .
‘What?’ shouted Loki. ‘Anything! Mercy!’
‘Only if you will swear to bring Idun and her apples out of Asgard.’ Loki closed his eyes and pressed his lips together and said nothing.
He knew now that the eagle could only be one of the giants, in disguise. The eagle swooped again and Loki could hardly bear the pain as his knee-caps and shins and ankles and toes cracked against rocks and boulders and scree.
‘Mercy!’ implored Loki. ‘I promise you. I swear it.’
‘Seven days hence,’ said the eagle. ‘Lead Idun over Bifrost when the sun is half-way between east and west.’
‘I promise,’ called Loki.
The Trickster found that his hands were at once set free and he fell to the stony ground. Very slowly he picked himself up and looked at his wounds. Then, in the gathering darkness, he began to limp back towards his companions.
Seven days passed and Loki found Idun wandering through the sloping field above her hall. She was singing softly to herself, and was quite carefree; the sun caressed her. Childlike she moved, untroubled by the world’s troubles around her, petty squabbles, suffering, savage wars, and, always, time passing. Her basket of golden apples was looped over one arm.
‘Idun!’ called Loki.
Bragi’s wife paused and turned.
‘I’ve come at once. You can’t imagine; I could scarcely believe it myself.’
‘Speak more simply,’ said Idun.
‘Deep in the forest just beyond Bifrost, I came across a tree quite unlike the others. Unlike any tree I’ve seen in the nine worlds. It stands in a glade and it glows with a soft light.’
Idun opened her grey eyes wide, and Loki went on to describe his find so carefully that anyone less trusting would have known it came straight out of his head.
‘Idun, it bears golden apples,’ he said, jabbing with his forefinger at one of the apples in the basket. ‘The same as yours. And perhaps, like yours, they contain unending youth. We should take them at once for the gods.’
Idun smiled and nodded in agreement.
‘Don’t forget your own apples. We must compare them,’ said Loki, and he led the way over the sunlit field and out of Asgard. They hurried past Heimdall’s hall and then Loki took Idun by the hand and walked with her over Bifrost. The flames danced around their feet and they were unharmed.
The eagle was waiting. As soon as Idun set foot in Midgard, it rose from a thicket. It beat its dark wings, swooped on the goddess, and snatched her up. It carried her and her apples straight over the sea to Jotunheim — for as Loki had suspected, the eagle was none other than a giant. It was Thiazi.
Thiazi lifted Idun to his storm-home at Thrymheim, high in the mountains. ‘Here you’ll stay,’ he gloated. ‘Without you, without your apples, the gods will age, and I will remain young for ever.’
When they missed Idun, the gods at once grew extremely anxious. They knew that without her magic apples, they would wither and grow old. And, indeed, they soon began to crumple inside their clothes and to seem smaller than they were before. Their skin hung over their bone- houses, bunched or puffy or wrinkled, or stretched so tight that it looked as though the bone would break through. The eyes of one became bloodshot and the eyes of another misty; one god’s hands began to tremble, one lost all his hair, and one could not control his bowels. Their joints creaked and ached and they felt utterly limb-weary. The gods felt the spring in their step and the strength in their bodies ebbing from them hour by hour.
Then the minds of the gods lost their skip and started to soften. One became outspoken about the shortcomings of the others and one began to ramble like an idiot, but most of the gods grew quiet and did not trouble to say many things they would have said before. And they were all obsessed by the same concern with time, the same fear. When they did speak, they repeated themselves; or they began sentences and did not complete them. The summer sunlight shone on Asgard, flocculent clouds drifted overhead, and the minds of the gods wandered even as they worried about their old age.
Odin knew he must rally his own strength and summon the gods to council. Everyone in Asgard made his way to Gladsheim, a dismal straggling procession under the sun. Of all the gods and goddesses and their servants, only Idun and Loki were missing.
Allfather looked at the great gathering of stooping, shuffling, mumbling figures. ‘We must find Idun,’ he called. ‘You see how it is without her, without her apples. And it will grow worse. Who was the last to see her?’
‘I saw Loki lead Idun over Bifrost,’ said Heimdall’s servant. There was a deep silence in Gladsheim. No one doubted then that Loki was the cause of what had happened to them.
‘There is only one thing to do,’ said Odin. ‘We must capture Loki.’
Weary as they were, the gods searched for the Trickster; they looked in every hall and outbuilding, and in every copse and corner of Asgard; they knew their lives depended on it. At last they found him asleep in Idun’s own field, and they seized and bound him before he could do anything about it.
Loki was brought to Valaskjalf, protesting, and there Odin at once charged him with leading Idun out of Asgard. ‘Bring her back,’ said Allfather. ‘Your choice is easy to explain and easy to understand. Bring Idun and her apples back. Otherwise we’ll put you to death.’
‘It is true,’ said Loki, ‘that I walked out of Asgard with Idun. But then I had no choice.’ Loki told them how the eagle that had carried him off when he was trekking with Odin, and Honir was none other than the giant Thiazi. ‘And I had to agree to those threats to escape with my life,’ said Loki.
‘Did you have to fulfil them?’ asked Odin.
Loki’s eyes gleamed, red and green.
‘Since you consort with eagles,’ said Odin, ‘we’ll draw a blood-eagle on your back.’
‘No,’ said Loki, and he shrank before Odin’s savage eye. ‘And your rib-cage will spring apart.’
‘No,’ said Loki, cowering.
‘Like wings,’ said Odin and his teeth were clenched.
‘I will find Idun and her apples,’ said Loki. ‘If Freyja will lend ine her falcon skin, I’ll fly at once into Jotunheim. I swear it.’
Then Odin shook and released Loki and Freyja, beautiful Freyja, her face like a pouch now and her hair falling out, went directly to her hall with him. She pulled down the falcon skin hanging over one of the beams.
‘You’re not quite so beautiful now that you’re bald,’ said Loki. Freyja said nothing. Her body shook. She wept tears of gold and handed Loki the falcon skin.
Thrymheim perched on the top of a precipitous sgurr and seemed actually to grow out of the dark rock. The winds whirled round it, and found their way through the walls into the cold, draughty rooms. When Loki reached it in the early evening, he was fortunate enough to find the giant Thiazi was not at home. He had gone off fishing, and his daughter Skadi had gone with him.
Loki discovered Idun in a smoky room, huddled over a fire. She turned to him and at once the schemer extended his falcon wings; he murmured the runes, the magic words, and turned Idun into a nut. Then he picked her up between his claws and flew off as fast as he could.
In a little time, Thiazi and his daughter returned from the day’s fishing. When the giant found that Idun was no longer there, he roared and hurled his pails to the ground. He knew there was no way in which the goddess could have escaped from Thrymheim without help.
Then Thiazi donned his eagle skin for a third time and set off across the mountains and the high lifeless wilderness. The distance from Thrymheim to Asgard was immense and the eagle was stronger than the falcon. As Loki drew closer to Asgard, so Thiazi drew closer to Loki.
When he sat in Hlidskjalf looking over the nine worlds, nothing escaped Odin: no movement of man or giant or elf or dwarf, bird in the air or animal on earth or fish in the water. What other gods could not see at all, Allfather fixed and followed with his single eye. Now he saw Loki flying at great speed towards Asgard and the eagle Thiazi chasing him. At once he ordered all the gods and goddesses and their servants, worn out and short-winded as they were, to hurry out of Asgard with bundles of plane shavings, all the wood that the servants of the gods prepared to kindle fires in their great halls. ‘Pile them up against the walls,’ said Odin. ‘Loki is coming.’
The still summer air began to hum, as if an unseen storm were near and about to burst on them. It began to throb and then the gods and goddesses saw the falcon, and the huge eagle close behind it. From a great height the falcon dived down over the walls of Asgard, still holding the nut between its claws. ‘Light the shavings!’ cried Odin. ‘The shavings!’
The flames leaped up, almost unseen in the bright sunlight. The eagle was so close behind the falcon that he could not stop himself; he Flew straight through the flames; his wings caught fire. Thiazi blundered on into Asgard, and fell to the ground in torment. Then the gods stumbled back through the gates into their citadel and quickly killed him there.
Loki threw off Freyja’s falcon skin. He looked at the grey, aged, anxious ones pressing around him, and scornfully laughed in their faces. Then the Sky Traveller bent over his trophy; he cradled it between his hands and softly spoke the runes.
Idun stood there, young and supple and smiling. She moved innocent among the ailing gods. She offered them apples.