Of all the groves and gardens round the city of Asgard—and they were many and beautiful—there was none so beautiful as the one where Idūna, the wife of Bragi, lived. It stood on the south side of the hill, not far from Gladsheim, and it was called "Always Young," because nothing that grew there could ever decay, or become the least bit older than it was on the day when Idūna entered it. The trees wore always a tender, light green colour, as the hedges do in spring. The flowers were mostly half-opened, and every blade of grass bore always a trembling, glittering drop of early dew. Brisk little winds wandered about the grove, making the leaves dance from morning till night and swaying backwards and forwards the heads of the flowers.
"Blow away!" said the leaves to the wind, "for we shall never be tired."
"And you will never be old," said the winds in answer. And then the birds took up the chorus and sang,—
"Never tired and never old."
Idūna, the mistress of the grove, was fit to live among young birds, and tender leaves, and spring flowers. She was so fair that when she bent over the river to entice her swans to come to her, even the stupid fish stood still in the water, afraid to destroy so beautiful an image by swimming over it; and when she held out her hand with bread for the swans to eat, you would not have known it from a water-lily—it was so wonderfully white.
Idūna never left her grove even to pay a visit to her nearest neighbour, and yet she did not lead by any means a dull life; for, besides having the company of her husband, Bragi, who must have been an entertaining person to live with; for he is said to have known a story which never came to an end, and yet which never grew wearisome. All the heroes of Asgard made a point of coming to call upon her every day. It was natural enough that they should like to visit so beautiful a grove and so fair a lady; and yet, to confess the truth, it was not quite to see either the grove or Idūna that they came.
Idūna herself was well aware of this, and when her visitors had chatted a short time with her, she never failed to bring out from the innermost recess of her bower a certain golden casket, and to request, as a favour, that her guests would not think of going away till they had tasted her apples, which, she flattered herself, had a better flavour than any other fruit in the world.
It would have been quite unlike a hero of Asgard to have refused such courtesy; and, besides, Idūna was not as far wrong about her apples as hostesses generally are, when they boast of the good things on their tables.
There is no doubt her apples had a peculiar flavour; and if any one of the heroes happened to be a little tired, or a little out of spirits, or a little cross, when he came into the bower, it always followed that, as soon as he had eaten one apple, he found himself as fresh, and vigorous, and happy as he had ever been in his life.
So fond were the heroes of these apples, and so necessary did they think them to their daily comfort, that they never went on a journey without requesting Idūna to give them one or two, to fortify them against the fatigues of the way.
Idūna had no difficulty in complying with this request; she had no fear of her store ever failing, for as surely as she took an apple from her casket another fell in; but where it came from Idūna could never discover. She never saw it till it was close to the bottom of the casket; but she always heard the sweet tinkling sound it made when it touched the golden rim. It was as good as play to Idūna to stand by her casket, taking the apples out, and watching the fresh rosy ones come tumbling in, without knowing who threw them.
One spring morning Idūna was very busy taking apples out of her casket; for several of the heroes were taking advantage of the fine weather to journey out into the world. Bragi was going from home for a time; perhaps he was tired of telling his story only to Idūna, and perhaps she was beginning to know it by heart; and Odin, Loki, and Hœnir had agreed to take a little tour in the direction of Jötunheim, just to see if any entertaining adventure would befall them. When they had all received their apples, and taken a tender farewell of Idūna, the grove—green and fair as it was—looked, perhaps, a little solitary.
iduna giving the magic apples.
Idūna stood by her fountain, watching the bright water as it danced up into the air and quivered, and turned, and fell back, making a hundred little flashing circles in the river; and then she grew tired, for once, of the light and the noise, and wandered down to a still place, where the river was shaded by low bushes on each side, and reflected clearly the blue sky overhead.
Idūna sat down and looked into the deep water. Besides her own fair face there were little, wandering, white clouds to be seen reflected there. She counted them as they sailed past. At length a strange form was reflected up to her from the water—large, dark, lowering wings, pointed claws, a head with fierce eyes—looking at her.
Idūna started and raised her head. It was above as well as below; the same wings—the same eyes—the same head—looking down from the blue sky, as well as up from the water. Such a sight had never been seen near Asgard before; and, while Idūna looked, the thing waved its wings, and went up, up, up, till it lessened to a dark spot in the clouds and on the river.
It was no longer terrible to look at; but, as it shook its wings a number of little black feathers fell from them, and flew down towards the grove. As they neared the trees, they no longer looked like feathers—each had two independent wings and a head of its own; they were, in fact, a swarm of Nervous Apprehensions; troublesome little insects enough, and well-known elsewhere, but which now, for the first time, found their way into the grove.
Idūna ran away from them; she shook them off; she fought quite bravely against them; but they are by no means easy to get rid of; and when, at last, one crept within the folds of her dress, and twisted itself down to her heart, a new, strange feeling thrilled there—a feeling never yet known to any dweller in Asgard. Idūna did not know what to make of it.