CHAPTER I: The Rune Key
Bray called excitedly to me from the forward deck of the schooner.
"Keith, your hunch was right. There's something queer in this trawl!"
Involuntarily I shuddered in the sudden chill of fear. Somehow I had known that the trawl would bring something up from the icy Arctic sea. Pure intuition had made me persuade Bray to lower his trawl in this unpromising spot.
"Coming, Bray!" I called, and hurried through the litter of sleds and snarling dogs.
Our schooner, the sturdy auxiliary ice-breaker Peter Saul, was lying at anchor in the Lincoln Sea, only four hundred miles south of the Pole. A hundred yards away, the dazzling white fields of ice stretched northward--a vast, frozen, scarcely explored waste.
When we had reached the ice pack the night before, I had somehow conceived the idea that Bray, the oceanographer, ought to try his luck here. Bray had laughed at my hunch at first, but had finally consented.
"Are you psychic, Keith?" he demanded. "Look what the trawl brought up!"
A heavy, ancient-looking gold cylinder, about eight inches long, was sticking out of the frozen mud. On its sides were engraved a row of queer symbols, almost worn away.
"What in the world is it?" I breathed. "And what are those letters on it?"
Halsen, a big, bearded Norwegian sailor, answered me.
"Those letters are in my own language, sir."
"Nonsense," I said sharply. "I know Norwegian pretty well. Those letters are not in your language."
"Not the one my people write today," Halsen explained, "but the old Norse--the rune writing. I have seen such writing on old stones in the museum at Oslo."
"Norse runes?" I blurted. "Then this must be damned ancient."
"Let's take it down to Dubman," Bray suggested. "He ought to be able to tell us."
Dubman, the waspish little archaeologist of the expedition, looked up in annoyance from his collection of Eskimo arrowheads when we entered. Angrily he took the cylinder and glared at it. Instantly his eyes lit up behind the thick spectacles.
"Old Norse!" he exclaimed. "But these are runes of the most ancient form--pre-Valdstenan! What is it?"
"Maybe the runes on it can give us a clue," I said eagerly.
"I'll soon find out what they mean," Dubman declared.
With a magnifying glass, he began to examine the symbols graven on the golden cylinder. Bray and I waited. I felt queerly taut. I could not understand just why I was so excited about this find, but everything about it had been queer. A persistent inner voice had kept telling me: "Make Bray let down his trawl here!" And the first time it was lowered, it had brought up a gold tube that must have lain on the sea-floor for centuries.
"Got it!" Dubman stated, looking up. "This thing is old, all right--the most ancient form of runic. The translation doesn't tell much. Listen to this?
Rune key am I,
Chaining dark evil,
Midgard snake, Fenris,
And Loki, arch-devil.
While I lie far,
The Aesir safe are,
Bring me not home,
Lest Ragnarok come."
A chill rippled through me, as though even the translation of those ancient runes could terrify me. Impatiently I shook off the feeling.
"What does all that stuff about the Aesir and Loki mean?" I asked.
"The Aesir were the ancient Norse gods, eternally youthful and powerful. Ruled by Odin, they lived in the fabled city of Asgard. Loki turned against them. With his two familiars, the monstrous wolf Fenris and the great Midgard serpent, Loki joined the Jotuns, the giant enemies of the gods. The gods finally managed to chain Loki, his wolf and his serpent. But it was predicted that if Loki ever broke his bonds, that would bring about Ragnarok--the doom of the Aesir.
"Bring me not home, lest Ragnarok come," he quoted. "This key claims to be the one with which Loki and his pets were locked up. Probably some ancient Norse priest made it to 'prove' the old myths, was shipwrecked and lost it in the sea."
"I don't get it," Bray complained. "What made you tell me to let down my trawl in just that spot, Keith?"
When I picked up the gold cylinder, a current of queer power ran up my arm. Somehow it seemed to warn me to drop it back into the sea. But I didn't obey, for something alien commanded me to keep the rune key.
"Can I study this for a few days?" I asked abruptly. "I'll take good care of it."
"I didn't know you had archaeological tastes, Masters," Dubman said, astonished. "But you were responsible for finding it, so you can keep it awhile. Don't lose it, though, or I'll skin you."
Through the little ring on one end of the cylinder, I passed a cord and hung it around my neck. It was cold against my skin--cold and menacing, persistently warning?
Naturally I tried to convince myself that I just wasn't the superstitious type. Besides my thirty years of disciplining myself to examine even obvious truths, and my towering height of lean muscle, I have inherited the canny skepticism of my Scottish ancestors. Anyhow, a scientist couldn't admit the existence of the supernatural. Like most other physicists, I claimed there were still a lot of forces which science hasn't had time to investigate yet. When it does, there will be no room for superstition, for belief in the supernatural is merely ignorance of natural laws.
But I worked twice as hard as anybody else, unloading our small rocket plane for my first reconnaissance flight northward. Not even intense physical labor could make me forget the sinister cold force of the rune key inside my shirt, though.
The menacing current felt even stronger when I stood on deck that night. Overhead, the aurora borealis pulsated in shifting bars and banners of unearthly radiance, changing the immense frozen ocean from white to green, violet and crimson. Like a mad musician, the freezing wind strummed the schooner's halyards and made the masts boom out their deep voices.
But the rune key under my shirt tormented me with its conflicting demands. It ordered me to throw it back to the icy waters. Helpless, I ripped it out and tugged at the cord, trying to snap it. An even stronger command made me put it back.
The moment I buttoned my shirt, I cursed myself for being a fool. Why should I want to destroy something of potential value to science? Inwardly, though, I realized that the demands of the rune key were stronger than my own will.
"It can be explained scientifically," I muttered uneasily. "Everything has a scientific explanation, once we can isolate it."
But how could a small, golden cylinder penetrate my mind and order it about like a servant? What filled my heart with doubt and dread?
For all my canny skepticism and scientific training, I couldn't answer those insistent questions, nor keep myself from being tormented by the damned thing?