Loki had known from the beginning of his so-called trial that his adoptive father Odin would go for the death penalty. His brother, Thor, had been cold and distant, generally avoiding eye contact, and wearing an expression of disgust for his younger sibling on his face, while his mother, Queen Frigga of Asgard, was pleading for Loki’s life.
Odin had sent her to her bower within the hour.
Now the morning of his execution had arrived, and Loki still couldn’t believe the sentence.
He was to hang in chains like a common thief.
The All-father didn’t even think him worthy of a warrior’s death any more, and all Loki had left was a prayer to the Norns for a quick, clean end. By broken neck, preferably. The God of Mischief had witnessed struggles at the gallows that had lasted up to half an hour while the victim thrashed around helplessly and slowly choked to death. Sometimes the rope was too short, or the drop didn’t work properly, and there had been at least two executions recently where the hangman had used ropes that were far too long. This had lead to the decapitation of the convicts: their heads had been literally sawn off by the rough hemp. These dreadful scenes had given Loki countless nightmares when he was a boy. They had been worse than the tales about the Frost Giants Nanny had regaled him with.
The scaffold was a place of torture, pain, and humiliation, and the gallows was an instrument of terror to keep the Asgardian populace in line.
A jailer brought Loki a bowl of gruel and a hairshirt made out of greyish, coarse cloth. This was to be his dying garment.
They really won’t spare me anything, Loki thought, wondering if a tumbril was waiting for him or if he would have to walk to the gallows. It was a long way because executions never took place within the city walls. Since he wasn’t allowed to wear his shoes, the god guessed it would be walking.
Loki had already changed when Thor arrived. The Thunderer was carrying a set of chains and a rope, and he was accompanied by his closest friends, the Warriors Three and Sif.
Sif and Volstagg had obviously come to gloat. They didn’t even bother to hide their spite any more, and radiated an air of triumph Loki found quite distasteful. He knew those two were only too happy to see him gone. Hogun just stared at him with a stern expression in his eyes, while Fandral was smiling. The warrior obviously thought that all this was good sport, and simply didn’t stop making quips at Loki’s expense.
I should have taken care of these bastards when there was still time, Loki thought with a tinge of regret.
Now Thor started to put his younger brother in chains and manacles, and placed a heavy collar around his neck. Then he added the rope Loki was to die on. It was overkill as usual.
Loki decided not to put up a fight. He knew perfectly well that Thor’s friends would tell tales and lies on how he had begged and pleaded for his life no matter how he acted on his last walk, and the god wanted to give them as little material to draw from as possible. Fortunately, Loki had enough energy left to cover his clammy skin and red-rimmed eyes with a suitable glamour. It also did a good job at steadying his shaking hands.
“It’s time,” Thor said. His voice was cold and hard, and didn’t betray the slightest trace of sympathy for his younger sibling.
The small procession was approaching the exit of the dungeons, and Loki tried to brace himself for the jeering of the crowd. Unlike his brother, the younger prince had never been popular on Asgard. Then he spotted a familiar figure clad in white and silver leaning casually against the wall next to the gate. Four palace guards in golden armour were trying to stand as far away from her as possible.
It was Idunn, the Goddess of Spring and Youth, and she looked seriously pissed off.
“Ah,” she said conversationally, wearing a mild smile on her lips. “If that isn’t the mighty Thor, leading his own brother to his death.”
“He’s adopted,” Thor told her defiantly.
Idunn tutted at him. “Now that’s an entirely new level of lame, godling. Even for you.”
“You can’t talk to him like that,” Sif chimed in.
“Can I not? Tell me, Sif, are you sharing Thor’s bed again, or is he still pining for Dr Foster?”
Just in time, Fandral grabbed the shield maiden’s arm as she tried to step forward and slap Idunn. “You must be suicidal,” he hissed, and gave the petite goddess in front of him an apologetic smile.
Idunn was not impressed.
There was one fundamental law on Asgard, and that was to follow Odin in all things, without questioning or ever talking back. That is, unless Idunn decided to make one of her rare appearances at court and overrule whatever it was the All-father had just decreed.
Because Idunn was the Mistress of the Golden Apples, and the key to the legendary prolonged youth and robust health of the Aesir. They would still live for millennia, but being a warrior was much less fun without the enhanced healing powers Idunn’s apples provided.
That was why nobody dared to mess with the goddess. Even Odin was known to give in to her often highly idiosyncratic reasoning. He roared a lot, but Idunn always won in the end. It was lucky for the All-father that the Goddess of Spring and Youth preferred to lead a very secluded life and didn’t bother with meddling in his affairs much. She had no taste for power, and felt that her garden was a lot more interesting than whatever idiocies were going on in the palace.
The only member of the royal family Idunn had ever shown any liking for was Loki, and a lot of people thought this very strange and a possible sign of insanity. Why bother with the black haired sorcerer when his brother was the better warrior, had a better personality, and was so much nicer to look at?
Still, Idunn held this unique position on Asgard, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
“You’ll be glad to hear that your aunt and your uncle have arrived from Vanaheim last night,” Idunn said. “They came as soon as they heard about the sentencing.”
Thor frowned. “Freya and Frey are here? Why was I not informed about this?”
“Because you were feasting, you useless oaf. You were drinking and making merry while your brother awaited his execution all alone because Odin had the nerve to refuse Frigga’s request to join Loki in his cell. That’s outrageous! Even the lowliest thief is allowed the comfort and company of his family and friends during his last night. But obviously, this rule doesn’t apply to Loki.”
The God of Thunder had the grace to look a little ashamed by now. Very little, to be honest, but at least he was making an effort.
Volstagg, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. “Loki is single handedly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Jotnar and Midgardians.”
“Contrary to whom?” Idunn asked, her voice dripping with loathing. “Shall we talk about Nornheim now, or Haragon? Vanaheim or Jotunheim, perhaps?”
“That is not the point.”
“Yes, it is. And if you’d ever taken some time to think instead of stuffing yourself with anything that isn’t actually glued to the table, you would have seen what’s wrong with the picture. You can’t hang a prince of Asgard for doing exactly what he was brought up to do.”
The palace guards were watching the scene with undisguised curiosity now. This story, they felt, would buy them many pints of ale at the inn tonight.
Idunn turned to Loki and reached out for his upper arms. “It was still wrong what you did, my dear,” she said. “But we’ll discuss this later over a cup of tea in my morning room, and you can tell me what happened from your point of view. It’s still a little too cold for the garden, I think. There’s apple pie, and Cook will be having a tray of cinnamon rolls ready when we come home.”
“What?” Thor just couldn’t believe his ears. “What’s all this talk of tea and pastry? Loki’s going to hang today, and that’s a fact. There is no more later left for him.”
“I don’t think so, you heartless boy.” The Goddess of Spring and Youth touched Loki’s chains. Thor, his friends, and the palace guards watched in disbelieve as the metal turned rusty, crumbled into dust and fell to the floor, leaving dark red stains that looked like dried blood on the prince’s cilice.
“There,” Idunn said.
Loki felt too numb to fully comprehend what was happening, and had to steady himself on his friend’s shoulders.
“Freya and Frey are with Odin now, giving him a piece of their mind. I‘m almost feeling sorry for the old fool, but he really had it coming,” Idunn told the young prince, touching him repeatedly to make him feel more confident.
Much to Thor’s chagrin, one of the guards snorted. It was well known that the Queen’s siblings had hated Odin ever since he had conquered their realm and took their sister to Asgard as a prize of war. Freya and Frey gave Odin a hard time whenever they could, and, being powerful deities themselves, they found many opportunities to devil the All-father. Odin had been heard to say that if he had known Vanaheim would give him a set of such truly terrible in-laws, he would have left the dratted place alone.
“I thought they despised me,” Loki whispered while rubbing his wrists. Then he started flexing his hands to get the circulatory system working again. He had a feeling of pins and needles in his hands, especially in the fingertips.
Idunn stroked his hair. “Let’s call it a strong dislike, shall we? And it’s not strong enough for them to stand by and watch their nephew die a disgraceful death. I think their aversion is a bit of a habit by now, really, and more likely to be directed at Odin than at you.”
Thor had been listening with growing bewilderment. “You are not going to take Loki away from this, Idunn. I have my orders from the All-father himself, and the prisoner can't be saved without his consent.”
The Goddess of Spring and Youth raised an eyebrow at him. “Says who? Are you aware, Thunderer, that your mother has spend the whole night at the temple praying for help? Well, I am a goddess, and I decided to hear her. So get out of my way now.”
“No,” Thor said.
Now that was clearly a mistake. Nobody really knew what powers Idunn had, but the rumours were forbidding. She was said to be as old as life, and some people even believed that the goddess was in fact the anthropomorphic personification of life itself.
Also, there was the small matter of the Golden Apples.
Out of the corners of her eyes, Idunn watched as Thor’s friends slowly backed away from the God of Thunder. This made her smile.
“I have come to a decision, Thor of Asgard, but first take a look at your shield siblings and learn,” the goddess told him. “A wise Midgardian once said that the same crowd that cheers at your coronation will also cheer at your execution.”
Thor never really understood what happened at this moment. Idunn suddenly looked very determined, and the God of Thunder made the same mistake many warriors had made before him. He thought that Idunn was no threat because she was small and dainty, looked like a very young girl, giggled a lot and had a tendency to say silly things nobody wanted to hear. Thor had often wondered how Loki was able to endure her quirks. But now she suddenly stood in front of him and had a shiny silver dagger in her hand. With a swift movement, she pushed it up to the hilt into Thor’s side.
Well, like so many warriors before him, Thor had just learned the hard way that Idunn was quick, strong, and completely ruthless when she wanted to make a point. Asgard should have been proud of her.
“Oh dear,” Idunn said, and watched the mighty god falling down. “No apples, and a kidney condition. You’re in for a few terrible centuries, my friend. But I’m a benevolent goddess, and you may appeal to me in 500 years from now on. If I feel that you have improved yourself, I might reconsider your sentence. So use your time well.” Then she waved at the Warriors Three and Sif. “Take him to the healers’ quarters. He’ll live.”
The goddess took the rope off Loki’s neck, mumbling things like sadists and perp walk fetishists under her breath.
“Well?” Idunn looked at the guards who rushed to the door and opened it for her. “I see. Someone has been learning after all. Now I really hope this story will buy you a few rounds at the tavern. People will probably be standing in a queue to hear an eyewitness account. Oh, and please excuse the mess, but it wouldn’t have been a proper gaolbreak without at least some bloodshed. Just in case there are some resentful spirits around to appease.”
Loki had to summon all his willpower to keep his glamour up as he and Idunn stepped out of the dungeons. Even behind those heavy, fortified gates, he had been able to hear the sound of the exited crowd that was waiting for him outside.
And then the jeering stopped, and everyone went silent.
All eyes were on Idunn as she shooed the hangman and his assistant away. “The gala has been cancelled. You may go home now,” she said in a cold voice.
Slowly, the assembled multitude dissolved. Loki could see the street vendors hurrying off, trying to find new, more promising spots to cry their wares. Some people still loitered despite the early morning chill and stared at the odd couple: Idunn, with huge, fresh bloodstains on her white silk dress, and Loki, looking every inch the prince he was despite his coarse tunic and his bare feet.
Asgard has certainly prepared for a real feast today, he thought bitterly. It’s not everyday that one could see a god hang. Loki felt the reassuring touch of his friend on his elbow, and listened as Idunn prattled away on the breakfast she had ordered for them, the nice, hot bath Loki would take, and the fine clothes that were waiting for him.
“Strawberry jam,” the goddess muttered. “And clotted cream.”
And Loki could only nod because everything felt so strange right now.
At Idunn’s house, a servant was already waiting for them.
“Your room is ready, Loki,” she said smilingly, and ushered him upstairs. There seemed to be some kind of commotion in the kitchen, and the familiar voices of Cook and Idunn’s old footman made the prince feel like coming home after a long absence.
And from a certain point of view, this was very much the case.
It was this place Loki had come to as a boy whenever the situation at the palace had grown too tense to cope with, or when he simply felt too lonely and just couldn’t stand it any longer. He kept his favourite books here, helped Idunn in the garden, or talked her into sharing charms and spells Frigga refused to teach him. Some of the happiest moments of his life had taken place in Idunn’s home.
My old room, Loki thought as he entered, feeling a warm wave of gratitude rushing through his body. My refuge, and everything is just as I left it before I fell. As if last year never happened.
Suddenly, Loki realised what he had gone through this morning. His own father had ordered him to be killed, and yet he was alive. It had been a narrow escape, and if Idunn hadn’t interfered, Odin’s ravens would be picking at his eyes by now.
Loki felt his knees give way, and he sat on his bed. His whole body trembled with panic, and he began to sweat. I still have a body, the prince told himself. I’m still here.
He started to sob, silently first, then louder until tears streamed down his face. Loki was shaking uncontrollably now as he recalled the events of the recent months, beginning with how he found out about his origins. He remembered his time in the void, and how Thanos had found him. How Thanos had tortured him into submission.
Midgard. Stuttgart and New York. The Chitauri. Thor and his new warrior friends. The trial where Loki hadn’t been granted the opportunity to defend himself.
“My trial,” he said out loud, laughing hysterically. “My own blasted trial and I’m not even allowed to get a hearing.” And then he laughed again, and cried some more, until only dry sobs were left in him. Loki’s throat hurt, and his eyes were burning, but he decided to have his bath now and wash the stink of the dungeons off his body.
On his way to the morning room, Loki dropped the clothes he had been given for the execution in the kitchen.
“Would you please burn this for me?”
Cook nodded. “Sure,” she said.
Idunn was peering anxiously at the prince when he joined her at the breakfast table.
“You’re looking good,” she told him.
“I’m a complete and utter mess, Idunn. Just look at my eyes,” Loki answered. “But the good news is that I still have eyes. I still have a body.”
“You’re still here,” Idunn added, and poured him a cup of pale, fragrant tea.
“Idunn, do you realise that Odin is going to be furious?” Loki asked after he had taken a sip of the delicious beverage. Not for the first time, he was amazed by her unpredictable streaks of recklessness.
“Yes,” the goddess replied pleasantly. “But that’s tomorrow’s problem, isn’t it? If he should proof himself to be even more unreasonable than usual, I’m going to threaten him with leaving the realm, and taking you and my trees with me. Frigga will go ballistic and make Odin see sense this time, I can safely promise you that.”
Loki smiled at his friend. “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
“Um,” Idunn said, and Loki noticed an unfamiliar sheen in her eyes. “I think Cook has burned the cinnamon rolls. Would you like a slice of apple pie instead?”
Then she entertained her guest with a lengthy and slightly odd anecdote about a snail she had found in her strawberry beds. And whenever Loki’s hands started to tremble again, the goddess gently took his cup away from him, pulled the prince into an embrace and held him tight for a minute or two.