But Thor said nothing. He was thinking about the night before, and wrestling old age, of drinking the sea. He was thinking about the Midgard serpent.
THE APPLES OF IMMORTALITY
This was another time that there were three of them, exploring in the mountain wastes on the edge of Jotunheim, the home of the giants. This time the three of them were Thor and Loki and Hoenir. (Hoenir was an old god. He had given the gift of reason to humans.)
Food was hard to find in those mountains, and the three gods were hungry, and getting hungrier.
They heard a noise—the lowing of distant cattle—and they looked at each other and grinned the grins of hungry men who would eat that night. They came down into a green valley, a place of life, where huge oak trees and high pine trees bordered meadows and streams, and there they saw a herd of cattle, huge and fat on the valley’s grass.
They dug a pit and built a fire of wood in the pit, and they slaughtered an ox and buried it in the bed of hot coals, and they waited for the food to be done.
They opened the pit, but the meat was still raw and bloody.
Again they lit a fire. Again they waited. Again the meat had not even been warmed by the heat of the fire.
“Did you hear something?” asked Thor.
“What?” said Hoenir. “I heard nothing.”
“I heard it,” said Loki. “Listen.”
They listened, and the sound was unmistakable. Somebody somewhere was laughing at them, vast and amused.
The three gods looked all around them, but there was no one else in the valley, only themselves and the cattle.
And then Loki looked up.
On the highest branch of the tallest tree was an eagle. It was the largest eagle that they had ever seen, a giant of an eagle, and it was laughing at them.
“Do you know why our fire will not cook our dinner?” asked Thor.
“I might know,” said the eagle. “My, you do look hungry. Why don’t you eat your meat raw? That is what eagles do. We tear it with our beaks. But you do not have beaks, do you?”
“We are hungry,” said Hoenir. “Can you help us cook our dinner?”
“In my opinion,” said the eagle, “there must be some kind of magic on your fire, draining its heat and its power. If you promise to give me some of your meat for myself, I’ll give your fire back its power.”
“We promise,” said Loki. “You can help yourself to your portion as soon as there is cooked meat for all of us.”
The eagle flew once around the meadow, beating its wings in gusts so powerful that the coals in the pit flared and flamed and the gods were forced to hold on to each other to keep from being blown off their feet, and then it returned to its perch high in the tree.
This time they buried the meat in the firepit with a good heart, and they waited. It was the summer, when the sun barely sets in the north lands and the day lasts forever, so it was late in the night that still felt like day when they opened the pit, to be met with the glorious smell of cooked beef, tender and ready for their knives and their teeth.
As the pit was opened, the eagle swooped down and seized in its claws the two rear haunches of the ox, along with a shoulder, and began to tear at it with a ravenous beak. Loki was furious, seeing much of his dinner about to be devoured, and he struck at the eagle with his spear, hoping to force it to drop its plundered food.
The eagle flapped its wings hard, creating a wind so strong it almost knocked the gods over, and it dropped the meat. Loki had no time to enjoy his triumph, because, he discovered, the spear was stuck in the great bird’s side, and as the eagle took off into the air, it carried him with it.
Loki wanted to let go of his spear, but his hands were stuck to the shaft. He could not let go.
The bird flew low, so Loki’s feet were dragged over stones and gravel, over mountainside and over trees. There was magic at work, and it was a magic mightier than anything Loki could control.
“Please!” he shouted. “Stop this! You are going to tear my arms from my sockets. My boots are already destroyed. You are going to kill me!”
The eagle soared off the side of a mountain and circled gently in the air, with only the crisp air between them and the ground. “Perhaps I will kill you,” it said.
“Whatever it takes to make you put me down,” gasped Loki. “Whatever you want. Please.”
“I want,” said the eagle, “Idunn. And I want her apples. The apples of immortality.”
Loki hung in the air. It was a long way down.
Idunn was married to Bragi, god of poetry, and she was sweet and gentle and kind. She carried a box with her, made of ash wood, which contained golden apples. When the gods felt age beginning to touch them, to frost their hair or ache their joints, then they would go to Idunn. She would open her box and allow the god or goddess to eat a single apple. As they ate it, their youth and power would return to them. Without Idunn’s apples, the gods would scarcely be gods . . .
“You are not saying anything. I think,” said the eagle, “I will drag you over some more rocks and mountaintops. Perhaps I will also drag you through some deep rivers this time.”
“I’ll get the apples for you,” said Loki. “I swear it. Just let me down.”
The eagle said nothing, but with a twitch of a wing it began to descend to a green meadow from which a fire’s smoke rose. A swoop, down to where Thor and Hoenir were standing openmouthed, looking up at them. As the eagle flew above the firepit, Loki found himself falling, still grasping his spear, and he tumbled onto the grass. With a cry, the eagle beat its wings and rose above them, and in moments it was a tiny dot in the sky.