World of Gnomes

For some minutes we lay on the sand. Though the roaring waves broke over us, neither of us was able to move. Gradually our strength returned, and we dragged ourselves farther up the beach. Frey sat up and panted a question.

"Was Thor slain? I saw him fall as I was hurled into the sea."

"He was only stunned, I think. The men of your ship got it free and fled back toward Asgard."

"I owe you my life, Jarl Keith." Frey's voice throbbed in the darkness. "I was sinking in the waves when you leaped after me. I'll not forget that debt."

I staggered to my feet.

"It's more important that we go after those Jotuns, and rescue Freya and the key."

"By now," muttered the Aesir noble hopelessly, "they must be near Jotunheim. We couldn't overtake them even if we had a ship."

"I can overtake them in a few minutes," I said grimly. "You Aesir may know a lot about atomic fires and subtle forces, but you don't know airplanes. Mine is moored right on this beach."

"Your flying ship?" he gasped. "I had forgotten about it. Is it swift enough to overtake the Jotun ships?"

"Swift enough?" I repeated. "Wait till you get in it. Maybe it'll make you think a little more highly of my science!"

I hastened toward the two great boulders between which I had moored my plane. It was gone! The tracks in the sand showed that it had been dragged down to the water.

"Someone's stolen my ship!" I groaned.

"The Jotuns must have done it. Whoever sent them to kill or capture you, Jarl Keith, sent other warriors later to seize your flying ship."

"They must have dragged it down and pulled it aboard one of their biggest ships," I muttered. "Now we don't have a chance of overtaking Freya's captors before they reach Jotunheim."

"Aye, I fear that all is lost," Frey sighed, "Now that the Jotuns have Freya and the rune key, the Jotun king Utgar will hasten to release Loki from his prison-cave. And once Loki is free and conspiring again with the Jotuns, it will be doom for all Asgard and the Aesir."

My natural inclination was to hasten by the fastest method to Jotunheim, in an attempt to rescue Freya. But I realized that I owed my first duty to the cause of all the Aesir. It was I who had unwittingly brought the rune key that might loose Loki on them.

"Frey, tell me. Where and how far from here is the cave in which Loki is held prisoner?"

"It is miles to the south, deep in the labyrinth of caves that lie under Midgard," he said bewilderedly. "Why do you ask?"

"If you and I hurried to the door of Loki's prison and waited there," I explained eagerly, "we could be there when the Jotun king came to release Loki. We could strike Utgar down and take back the key before he could release that devil. And then, with the key safe, we could find a way to get Freya out of Jotunheim."

Frey was startled by the boldness of my plan.

"It is a daring scheme," he breathed, "and I do not crave to go near Loki. Yet it might succeed. It might prevent his escape."

"How can we get to that prison-cave before the Jotuns get there with the rune key?"

"There's but one quick way — through the tunnels of the Alfings," Frey declared.

"The Alfings? The dwarfs who live in the caves under the mainland?"

"Yes, Jarl Keith, and they like no strangers to come unasked into Alfheim. Yet they are friends of Freya and might let us pass through for her sake. It's dangerous to try, but I am willing."

"Lead on, then," I said. "Find the nearest way into the Alfings' caverns!"

Frey led me to a black opening in the rock wall, the mouth of a pitch-dark passage that ran straight back into the cliff. Its sides showed that it had been excavated by human ingenuity. We entered it.

The tunnel was only five feet high, forcing us to stoop as we proceeded. In a few moments, we were blinded by complete darkness, but we groped on. Then Frey stopped suddenly in the cramped passage. I glimpsed the glimmer of green eyes shining at us from ahead.

"Wild beasts?" I asked, my hand going to the hilt of my sword.

"Alfings," Frey answered tautly. "They can see us even in this darkness. Take your hand from your sword and do not move, lest you die quickly."

I stood unmoving as a statue beside Frey, peering tensely into the darkness ahead, listening to the muffled sound of rapid shuffling. The green eyes shining eerily through the blackness were increased in number. The extreme tension in Frey's figure beside me told me that we were in peril. I remembered what Odin had said of the Alfings. They were an older race than either Jotun or Aesir, and had taken no part in the wars between the two great enemy peoples. "We are friends, Alfings!" Frey called clearly.

From the dark answered a heavy, hoarse, growling voice.

"You come uninvited into Alfheim. The penalty is death, whether you be Jotuns or Aesir."

"We are Aesir," Frey answered quickly, "and we entered your passages only because of dire necessity. I am Frey, kinsman of the lady Freya, whom you know well."

There was a low murmur of deep voices from ahead, as though his statement had caused excitement.

"Freya's name may save us here," he muttered to me. "She has always been a friend of the Alfings, as her mother and mother's mother were before her."

The bass voice answered from the dark.

"The lady Freya is welcome always in Alfheim. But that welcome has not been extended to the other Aesir, as you well know. However, we shall take you to our king Andvar for judgment. Lay down your weapons."

"Drop your sword, Jarl Keith," said Frey.

Our swords fell to the rock floor together. We saw the shining green eyes approach, heard heavy feet thumping all around us and the sudden scratch of flint on steel. A spark leaped. Big resinous torches flamed with ruddy light, illuminating the whole cramped tunnel.

Surrounding us were a dozen Alfings, all armed with short, heavy spears and huge maces of metal. They kept their weapons raised alertly toward us, except the two who held the torches. The tallest was only four-and-a-half feet high. But their bodies were squat and massive beyond belief, with enormously broad, hunched shoulders, arms and legs of tremendous thickness, and big heads with shaggy, dark hair. Their faces were massive and swarthy, their green eyes shining like those of animals. They wore leather tunics and leather sandals soled with iron.

"Andvar will judge you, Aesir," their leader rumbled to us, his green eyes watching us suspiciously. "If you try to escape, you die."

"We have no thought of escape," I assured him. "Lead us to Andvar."

The Alfings shuffled forward with us along the cramped tunnel, one of the torch-bearers keeping ahead and one behind. The others watched us closely, keeping their weapons alertly raised. Presently the tunnel ran into another low passage chiseled from the rock, and then into another.

"Do these people always live underground?" I asked Frey.

"Not all the time, Jarl Keith. They emerge cautiously by day, sometimes. But their dwellings and workshops are in these caves."

"Workshops?" I repeated.

"The Alfings are cunning workers with strange skills," Frey explained. "Not alone are they wonderful forgers of metal. They know how to transmute metals at will, by an alchemy that makes use of radioactive force. Freya has often told me of their weird achievements."

After an Alfing had run ahead to bear tidings of our approach, I heard drums throbbing hollowly through the maze of passages. Ever louder they boomed, like the amplified beating of many hearts. We emerged from the tunnel into a great cavern, one of their smithies. Great forges blazed in it, and clever trip-hammers were beating out white-hot metal.

The quivering glow of the forges paled the torchlight of our guards, and the banging clangor of the brazen hammers was deafening in the echoing cavern. The Alfing smiths looked up from their work to watch with wide, suspicious green eyes. We passed through another resounding cavern of smiths, and entered a chamber that was filled with a glaring white radiance.

"What is that?" I exclaimed, blinking.

"One of the caverns of the alchemists," Frey said. "See, Jarl Keith, how they use strange science to change metals."

A strange science it was, indeed. The primitive science of the dwarfs was accomplishing things beyond the highly advanced science of my modern world. From leaden brackets projecting from the cavern wall were suspended a dozen globes like brilliant, tiny suns, blazing with white radiance. These were bits of extremely active matter procured from far within the Earth by the fearless dwarfs.

Round shields of heavy lead confined the fierce radiation and firmly directed it downward. That intense torrent of force was filtered through varying plates of translucent, quartzlike stone. Thus tempered, the streaming force played upon leaden trays set underneath. On these trays lay iron or copper objects — ornaments, buckles, dagger-sheaths, and the radiation was transforming them into gold!

"These little fellows aren't so primitive," I muttered enviously. "Transmutation of metals by radiation — it's been a laboratory experiment in my own world, but here they actually use it."

"It is quite simple, Jarl Keith," Frey stated. "They get the radioactive matter from the safer fringes of Muspelheim, the fire-world far beneath this land, from which we originally came."

"But what about those plates of quartz they use as filters?"

"They're not really quartz, but a synthetic substance the Alfings can make," he explained. "They can be adjusted to screen out any particular frequency of vibratory force desired. Thus the Alfings are able to apply the isolated radiation which the transmutation needs."

We passed through two more of the alchemic workshops, and then reentered the dark tunnels.

"Frey, will the dwarf king help us?" I asked in a low, anxious voice.

"I don't know," Frey said doubtfully. "He may, if he thinks there's danger of Loki's release. The Alfings fear Loki as greatly as we do."