“I wonder what that was about,” said Thor.
“Who knows?” said Loki.
“We left you some food,” said Hoenir.
Loki had lost his appetite, which his friends attributed to his flight in the air.
Nothing else interesting or out of the ordinary occurred on their way home.
The next day Idunn was walking through Asgard, greeting the gods, looking at their faces to see if any of them were beginning to look old. She passed Loki. Normally Loki ignored her, but this morning he smiled at her and greeted her.
“Idunn! So good to see you! I feel age upon me,” he told her. “I need to taste one of your apples.”
“You do not look as if you are aging,” she said.
“I hide it well,” said Loki. “Oh! My aching back. Old age is a terrible thing, Idunn.”
Idunn opened her ash-wood box and gave Loki a golden apple.
He ate it with enthusiasm, devouring it, seeds and all. Then he made a face.
“Oh dear,” he said. “I thought you’d have, well, nicer apples than this.”
“What a peculiar thing to say,” said Idunn. Never before had her apples been received like this. Normally gods talked only about the perfection of the flavor and how good it was to feel young again. “Loki, they are the apples of the gods. The apples of immortality.”
Loki looked unconvinced. “Perhaps,” he said. “But I saw some apples in the forest that were finer in every way than your apples. Looked nicer, smelled nicer, tasted nicer than these. I think they were apples of immortality too. Perhaps a better kind of immortality than yours.”
He watched expressions chasing each other across Idunn’s face—disbelief, puzzlement, and concern.
“These are the only apples like this that there are,” she said.
Loki shrugged. “I’m just telling you what I saw,” he said.
Idunn walked beside him. “Where are these apples?” she asked.
“Over there. Not sure I could tell you how to get there, but I could take you through the forest. It’s not a long walk.”
“But when we see the apple tree,” said Loki, “how will we be able to compare those apples to the ones in your ash box back in Asgard? I mean, I could say, They are even better than your apples, and you would say, Nonsense, Loki, these are shriveled crabapples compared to my apples, and how could we tell?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Idunn. “I will bring my apples. We will compare them.”
“Oh,” said Loki. “What a clever idea. Well, then. Let’s go.”
He led her into the forest, Idunn holding tightly to her ash box containing the apples of immortality.
After half an hour of walking, Idunn said, “Loki, I am starting to believe that there are no other apples and there is no apple tree.”
“That’s unkind of you, and hurtful,” said Loki. “The apple tree is just at the top of that hill there.”
They walked up to the top of the hill. “There is no apple tree here,” said Idunn. “Only that tall pine, with the eagle in it.”
“Is that an eagle?” asked Loki. “It’s very big.”
As if it heard them, the eagle spread its wings and dropped from the pine tree.
“No eagle am I,” said the eagle, “but the giant Thiazi in eagle shape, here to claim the beautiful Idunn. You will be a companion to my daughter, Skadi. And perhaps you will learn to love me. But whatever happens, time and immortality have run out for the gods of Asgard. So say I! So says Thiazi!”
It seized Idunn in one taloned claw and the ash-wood box of apples in the other, and it rose into the sky above Asgard and was gone.
“So that’s who that was,” said Loki to himself. “I knew it wasn’t just an eagle.” And he made his way home, hoping vaguely that nobody would notice that Idunn and her apples were gone, or that if they did, it would be long after anyone would connect her disappearance with Loki taking Idunn into the forest.
“You were the last to see her,” said Thor, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand.
“No, I wasn’t,” said Loki. “Why would you even say that?”
“And you haven’t become old like the rest of us,” said Thor.
“I’m old but I’m lucky,” said Loki. “I wear it well.”
Thor grunted, entirely unconvinced. His red beard was now snow-white with a few pale orange hairs in it, like a once-proud fire become white ashes.
“Hit him again,” said Freya. Her hair was long and gray, and the lines in her face were deep and careworn. She was still beautiful, but it was the beauty of age, not of a golden-haired maiden. “He knows where Idunn is. And he knows where the apples are.” The necklace of the Brisings still hung around her neck, but it was dull and tarnished, and it did not shine.
Odin, father of the gods, held on to his staff with knobby, arthritic fingers, blue-veined and twisted. His voice, always booming and commanding, was now cracked and dusty. “Do not hit him, Thor,” he said in his old voice.
“See? I knew that you at least would see reason, All-father,” said Loki. “I had nothing to do with it! Why would Idunn have gone anywhere with me? She didn’t even like me!”
“Do not hit him,” repeated Odin, and he peered at Loki with his one good eye, now glaucous gray. “I want him to be whole and unbroken when he is tortured. They are heating the fires now, and sharpening the blades, and collecting the rocks. We may be old, but we can torture and we can kill as well as ever we could when we were in our prime and had the apples of Idunn to keep us young.”