Red. The Firespawn

© 2001 by Torquemada

This page was last modified: 2001/01/17

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-So. The time for Red, now.
-Yes But Red is weak, and his weakness will lead to his defeat.
-I remember his weakness. He loves.
-No. He is loved.

The big wooden house burned brilliantly in the night. The light given by the fire was blinding bright; flames and shadows danced around, trying to reach the skies. Some of the attempts were really majestic, it seemed that the fire would succeed - these leaps illuminated the surroundings, for short moments dragging out of the dark human figures that were fleeing away.

Some of them weren't running though. Several bodies laid stiff on the snow, and next to them there stood a man with a torch.

He was looking at the house - eyes wide open, red flames reflecting in them, making him look like mad.

He was mad.

"Is this what you wanted?" he shouted at the house. "You won, right? Taking her away finally - after all that time you pretended you gave up, but that was nothing more than a disguise, was it? And now you can be happy, she is yours - again, and forever now. Thank you...thank you a lot! And accept this little gift from me as a sign of my endless gratitude! Take it, you've earned it!"

The flame from the torch gently licked man's sleeve. Then, as it liked the taste, went down, slowly at first, then faster - and finally the flame covered all his figure. Fortunately, the man was mad enough to let his own death pass unnoticed.

I choose my gifts myself, Egil.

In the house there lay the body of a woman, the wife of the man, who outlived her only by few hours; the mistress of this house, which now became her funeral fire. And next to her, there was a small sack, which caused both the death of a woman and the madness of a man.

A baby.

He was sleeping. The fire strangely avoided entering this room as long as it could - but finally it crawled in, running around the corners like a newcomer cat; then it reached the bed, stopped there, hesitantly; and finally it seemed to come to the decision. It climbed up the bed - but the small sack was carefully avoided.

The baby woke up. It was apparently not the heat or the smoke that caused it - or at least, it didn't bother the baby much. With his big, almost enormously big eyes, blue like clear melting ice on the lake in a bright spring day, he followed the flames that danced around - too serious and concerned for a newborn baby. And no redness of flames was reflecting in his eyes - the blue abyss absorbed it fully and easily, giving a frighteningly clear look to them.

Equally impossible it was that the baby managed to free one hand and to extend it towards the fire. And the fire leant towards it - not greedily, like it usually would, but tenderly and carefully. Flames caressed baby's fingers. It seemed that the fire was kissing them like a loving mother.

And though the baby was too small to know how to smile, he smiled nevertheless.

* * *

"Lady Signy, lady Signy! A disaster upon your sister's house!"

Signy turned to the newcomer, frowning. She knew the man - he belonged to Egil and Aud's house. But now she hardly recognized him - the man's clothes were torn, his face was black with soot, only eyes shone with whiteness and wildness in them.

"Calm down and tell me what had happened?"

The man nodded and caught his breath.

"A real disaster, lady! Lady Aud, your sister, she... she is gone, I'm sorry... in giving birth - there was a boy, lady, strong and healthy boy! But lord Egil went mad when your sister died, and he put the house on fire, lady! Some men tried to hinder him, but he killed them! I ran here like crazy, because you are wise and powerful, lady Signy, you still can help, I know..."

Signy didn't wait him to finish; she already was running towards the stables.

She mounted Raven, the fastest horse of theirs, which also had the nastiest temper of all. But now he felt it was not a good time to play any tricks.

Like the wind, Signy galloped to her sister's homestead. Maybe it was not too late... Signy desperately was hoping it wasn't.

What could have happened to Egil? Signy remembered her brother-in-law as a smart and witty man, strong and persistent enough to draw the attention of one of the Firechildren. Why had he suddenly broken down? Had Aud's death affected him so much that he put to death his own kin? Something unbelievable... or the entity of the fire, which was part of his wife, finally got him? Then it could be explained. Nobody was able to bear the fire inside and stay the same. Nobody, except the Firechildren.

Firechildren... that's how people called men and women like Signy and Aud. Nobody knew why Firechildren were born like that, or what power they could wield. Even Firechildren themselves knew little. That power of theirs was more of the soul than of the mind. It was believed they could tame the fire, but that was not true, since fire could never be tamed. One could only become a friend with it, cooperating and helping each other sometimes. Signy never could understand what the fire gained from such a friendship, but there must be a reason.

Yet one thing they, the Firechildren, knew even too well: fire was jealous. That's why Firechildren seldom had families. But Signy risked, and seemed to get away. Aud... Aud had failed.

When Signy reached the house, there was not much left. Small flames flickered here and there, giving still enough light for her to notice the sprawled bodies on the ground. Avoiding to look at them - she would care about that later - Signy approached the burned down house.

Several smoldering logs were still upright, but she knew they were so fragile they would crumble into ashes if touched. Signy looked at them, strangling the pain in her heart, remembering Aud and Egil. All that she was able to do now was just to stand here in remembrance.

After a while Signy was distracted by a vague sound. She listened to it - the sound seemed familiar, but it took her some time to recognize it.

Because it was too creepy to hear a baby's gurgling in the place of the death.

At first, Signy sadly thought that the soul of innocent baby, who died there, decided to stay at his place of death. It happened sometimes; but then the crazy, desperate hope struck Signy.

'It can't be', she thought. 'You just wish him to be alive, that's all... it's only the imagination on fever. And yet... what if it is possible?'

She cautiously stepped forward. The burned logs cracked, but stayed as they were. Slowly, Signy walked forward, the firebrands turning to ashes under her feet. The voice became clearly heard, it gained the direction, and she turned towards it. The red glow of a fire showed her the way. Signy rounded another remained logs, and stopped short, terrified by what she saw.

In the circle of flames, there really was a baby. Naked, as he was born - flames burned his coverings, but he looked perfectly alright himself. Somehow, the flames hadn't been extinguished here, like they knew they were his only protection from the deadly frost. But they didn't harm the baby, either. And the baby... he was playing with the flames - and it even seemed to Signy he talked to the fire in his cheerful baby language.

'So, another one of us.' Signy thought wearily, at the same time feeling the relief filling her heart. She approached the baby, bent over him...

...and flames roared up in anger, almost reaching her face and forcing her to back away.

He is mine.

'I know,' Signy answered. 'But you cannot bring him up, and I can. Let me take care of him, please?' The flame seemed to be hesitating. Then it went down, unwillingly. 'Thank you.' Signy took the baby out of the circle, swaddled him into her warm cloak. He obviously preferred the company of the fire, because immediately frowned and started to cry.

"Hush, little one... everything's will be alright. Hush..." Signy soothed the baby, and he probably felt the familiar entity of fire, calmed down, looking at Signy with clear blue eyes... Aud's eyes. The knowledge of what had happened there, immediately returned with doubled sorrow, and Signy could not help but to start crying, silently, by herself.

Don't worry about your sister. From now on, I will take care of her. She will be happy. And you take good care of my beloved. I will watch you.

'I promise.' nodded Signy, slightly worried about how the fire addressed the baby. But fire was the most emotional entity, and it wasn't used to hide its emotions. Because of that, many passion and emotion depicting words had names, connected to fire. Maybe there was nothing strange, after all.

Signy wept a little on her way home, while nobody could see her. The baby, however, slept peacefully all the way.

When she got home, her son Siegfried waited in front of their house, alone. Siegfried always was fighting for this privilege to meet his mother like a true master of the house. His father finally gave up not too long time ago, and, with a smile, passed this right to him.

"Mama, where have you been? People said you took Raven and galloped away like ten thousand devils were chasing you. I was worried, because you know Raven, he can't be trusted..."

Signy dismounted, carrying the baby in one hand, and handed the reins to her son. That was another tradition Siegfried treated very seriously.

"Later, Siegfried," she smiled at her son. Later, she would tell him what has happened, hiding nothing. He had a right to know the truth. Later.

"And what is that?" Siegfried fixed the curious gaze on the sack in her hands.

"Here? Here is...a present for you, Siegfried. A little brother, like you always were asking me and your father for, remember? Thus here he is." Signy shooed away the thought why she and Siggeir could not have children anymore, after Siegfried was born. This thought bothered her too many times, and now the time for it was wrong.

"Really?" Siefgried's eyes flared with excitement. "Let me look, please?"

Signy lowered the sack.

"Yuck. He's ugly." Siegfried stated with childish candor.

"He will improve." Signy smiled.

"And where did you get him anyway? Just don't tell me you found him somewhere in the cabbage field or suchlike. Those are tales for kids." Siegfried announced, confident in his own 7 years old maturity.

"No cabbages. I found him in the fire."

"Really? No kidding?" Siegfried looked at her, already with belief in his eyes. Somehow the fire seemed more acceptable option than a field of cabbages.

"No kidding. Now, let's go and introduce your brother to your father, will we?"

"Right...what's his name?"

Signy remembered her conversations with Aud on the babies. She swallowed the grief, which crept together with memories.

"Hagen. That's his name."

* * *

Siggeir, Signy's husband, accepted the baby like he was his own son, and that was natural enough. Another man in the family was only for the best.

Egil was buried silently, everyone carefully avoided the subject of his madness and what he had done just before his death. Together with Egil, his branch of the family died. Hagen, his son, became one of the Volsungs.

At Signy's house, Hagen had shown nothing that could be counted as unnatural for a child of his age, and Signy never told anyone about the circumstances under which she had found him. There was no need to scare the people. Their fright would only turn against Hagen himself.

He was being raised like any child. He called Siggeir 'father' and Siegfried 'brother', and they reacted like it were the truth. Actually, both of them would be surprised if Signy ever reminded them Hagen was not really their son or brother. They always thought of him like he was born in the family. Only Signy was strict and never let Hagen call her 'mother'. She respected and loved Aud too much to steal her son away, and she knew that Hagen would understand this when he grew up, though now she saw how hurt he was. But Signy couldn't act in different way. With every passing year, the little boy was becoming more and more similar to Aud, while nothing showed him being of Egil's blood, too. This never let Signy forget his origin.

Neither could she forget his being the Firechild.

Hagen was never afraid of the fire. Most of children were not, until they were hurt by it - and it always happened. After that, children realized what a severe power fire possessed, and from then on, tried to avoid it, preferring to enjoy the warmness from a distance.

But Hagen never had such lesson. The fire never hurt him - when he stretched his little hands towards it, the fire backed away. When he grew old enough to crawl around with that miraculous swiftness of a small child and the ability to slip off the attention, Siggeir or Siegfried always managed to discover him, bravely heading towards the fireplace, before he could hurt himself, and carried to the safety. When he grew old enough to talk and walk on his own, nobody paid much attention to Hagen's attraction to the fire and his constant being near the fireplaces yet. The fire meant warmth, and that meant life in the land of eternal frost - so what's so strange about the kid?

Only Signy noticed the difference. Hagen, unlike other people who usually spent time together next to the fire, actually was spending time with the fire. Of course, he talked and played with other kids, but somehow it seemed the fire was the only thing that really mattered.

Once - Hagen was 3 years old already - she finally dared.

Signy found the boy sitting in his usual place near the fireplace in the main room of the house. There were no other people around; Siggeir was giving battle skills lessons to Siegfried, who was already a few years in the age when a man had to begin learning to protect himself and the people he cared. The other people were busy with their everyday tasks, and Signy found that a perfect situation.

"Hagen?" she silently approached the boy.

"What?" he wasn't scared by this sudden appearance. It seemed that nothing in this world was able to raise fear in him.

"What are you doing here?"


"Nothing but looking at the fire all day long? What's so interesting about it, that you never seem bored?"

Hagen looked at her, slightly surprised.

"But I thought you knew?"

"Knew what?"

"Well..." Hagen frowned, searching for proper words in his childish vocabulary. "The fire. Why I like to speak to her."

"Speak?" but much more Signy was concerned about 'her'.

"Not exactly speak. It is I, who talk, and she... well she answers, but I can't hear, you see? But I know she speaks, and I know you can speak to her too."

"How can you know that?"

"I just do... is it bad, Signy? I did something bad, right? Should I stop?" Now, Hagen seemed really worried; Signy silently cursed herself for the stupidity - she must know that by his childish logic, such questioning meant only one thing: he had done something bad, and now Signy was mad on him.

"No, no, Hagen. Nothing bad in it all." Signy forced a smile. "Just don't tell anyone about it, right?"

"Right." Hagen nodded, apparently relaxed. "That's what she says, too."

Signy dared not to ask any more.

Soon you will hear my words too, my love. Soon.

* * *

"Shouldn't you start teaching him, Signy?" Siggeir asked her one day, right before Hagen's fifth birthday.

"Teaching what?..."

"All that only you, fire people, know. Now he's old enough, so it seems to me he can learn."

"How you?..." Signy was utterly shocked. Siggeir laughed benevolently.

"Come on, dear, do you really think I am blind or stupid? Even if I was, the kid is a living picture of Aud - and Aud always was stronger than you were, as far as I can recall. And that is for good, I should say. The fire master in the family gives us the big advantage and the power."

"Right..." Signy smiled tiredly. "But maybe you should start first? Teach him all that basic you gave to Siegfried, and I will enter later - when he will know the principal weaponry good enough. Fire is dangerous to start with, it's too pleasant to wield; he might not want to learn another way to fight."

"Like always, you are talking a deal." Siggeir accepted her desperate excuse so easily. "Just don't take too long."

"Sure." Signy didn't know where this irrational reluctance came from. Maybe that was the way she found Hagen, or the way his parents had died.

I still can wait, my love. But soon...

Hagen accepted this stage of education with pride - it meant he was considered not a child anymore, but a man. And the training was a necessary duty of any man. Moreover, Hagen admired Siggeir and especially Siegfried, and like any little boy, tried to follow them in becoming as strong and powerful as they seemed to be.

* * *

"Siegfried, where are you going?"

"To the castle, mother."

"Take Hagen with you, then. You started to visit the castle so often in past few months, and I must say you abandoned your brother, leaving him alone all the time. That is not fair. You should treat your brother with much more responsibility, Siegfried. Never forget that you are older and must care of him."

"But mother!"

"Haven't you heard, Siegfried?"

"So, you went and squealed about me?" hissed Siegfried later, when both they were ridding towards the castle. He was almost boiling with fury: he, the brave, proud and independent warrior of full fourteen years, was nonchalantly forced to take this little sneak into the place he least wanted to take him. What a shame...

"You should take me with you earlier, when I was asking you to!" Hagen looked at his brother with that false innocence that spoiled younger siblings had mastered to act perfectly, and which never could trick the older brother, but always - the parents. "But always 'no', always 'later'...and I wanted to go there, what should I do?"

"Ah..." Siegfried strained through gritted teeth. "No use to teach you a lesson or two now. Be there and do only what I tell you. Or else..." he looked at his brother menacingly.

"Sure." Hagen nodded and lowered his head, what added to his obedience he wanted to demonstrate, and together hid the proud victory burning in his eyes.

The castle was so wonderful that Hagen immediately decided it was more than worthy to risk angering his brother. It was very huge and built not of the wood like their own house, but of stone. Its courtyard itself was big as a whole territory of Volsung household. Hagen looked around in delight, planning thousands of ways to spend an interesting time.

"Good day to you, Siegfried. You are a bit late today, and who is this young man with you?" he suddenly was distracted by female voice next to his ear.

The speaker was a girl, probably of the same age as Siegfried. White-haired, white-dressed, with the very warm eyes and pleasant smile - and Hagen immediately felt he liked her.

"That is my brother, Lady Hilda." With much amusement, Hagen noticed that Siegfried tried to look higher and sound lower. "Hagen, meet Lady Hilda, she is the owner of the castle, the ruler of our lands and the High Priestess of Odin. Greet her properly."

A real queen? The journey promised to be even more interesting.

"Really? Why didn't you bring him here earlier, Siegfried? He is so cute!" Hilda kept smiling at him.

Hagen sighed. Again, the same line - all them women always refused to accept him seriously, like a real Volsung warrior what he was, and only laughed at his annoyed explanations that he was no way any cutie, and jumped around, chimed excitedly and tousled his hair. But that was probably just never changing nature of every woman. With or without silly things, women must be respected - that's how Hagen was raised.

He gave Hilda a deep bow.

"My pleasure to meet you and to serve you, Milady."

Hilda laughed again and tousled his hair. Hagen endured the humiliation with calm patience. This woman was not just a woman, she was a real Queen, and Queens are allowed to do a lot of things.

"He is so well bred, Siegfried. Your responsibility, I guess?"

"I was and am still trying hard." Siegfried shone with pride, and Hagen thought, 'Liar!'

"But why are we standing in the yard? Come in." Hilda turned to go, Siegfried handed his horse's reins to the nearby groom and followed her. Hagen decided to do the same thing.

The inside of the castle was huge and equally impressive. And there was a small girl, standing next to the stairs.

"Hagen, I want you to meet my sister, Freya. I am sure she is eager to make friends with you, are you, Freya? There's not that much company for a girl of her age here, and I'm getting more and more busy recently. So you, Hagen, was sent by Odin here right in time."

The girl shyly looked at them.

"Siegfried, I want you to take a look at something that arrived this morning, and I..." Hilda's attention now all was on Siegfried, and he seemed to forget about Hagen completely. They both went up the stairs, leaving Hagen in the company of the small girl.

Hagen pouted. Very nice, indeed. Instead of playing something interesting with his brother in this fascinating place, he was left as a baby-sitter to this royal teenie-weenie, who would definitely insist on him seeing her dolls, make him play with her, and of course she would cry if he refused...

"I have got a sleigh." suddenly said the girl.

" do?"

"Want to take a ride? I know a few good steep hills around."

"Well...yes?" Hagen ventured. Anything was better than the dolls, and the sleigh was not the worst option of all 'anythings'.

The hills really were good and steep, and Freya always headed for the highest ones that looked unsafe even to him. She didn't cry, when they fell off the sleigh several times; later she incited the snow battle, and when Hagen accidentally hit her into the face with a snowball, she didn't cry either. On their way back, Hagen was already convicted that Freya was of the right kind.

When it got dark, they played "Hide and Seek" in the castle, then some chasing games - spacious hallways of the castle were perfect for that purpose; tired, they plopped on the heap of furs in Freya's room and only then Hagen remembered he hadn't seen his brother all the day.

"Oh, he is in Hilda's room, like always," Freya explained.

"All the evening? What could they do for so long?"

"I don't know. They lock the door."

"They do?" Hagen was absolutely sure that any locked door always contained something terribly interesting behind it, and that his, Hagen's, prime duty was to reveal all that secrets. "Let's go and spy on them!"

"But how?"

"Do they take the key out?"

Some time later, cautious childish steps in the hallway. Near one door: "Here!" Then, the sound of one body bumping into another echoed away, and a muffled "Ouch!".



A shuffling near the door.

"Do you see anything? Let me look."

"Nah, too dark. Wait - I see the fireplace, but it can't give enough light, almost extinguished it is."

"I say, let me look!"

"Too dark...if only the fire were brighter..." Suddenly, the flames in the fireplace jumped up, burning bright red - and two figures, shocked by what just had happened, jumped off each other, perfectly visible in the dazzling light.

And immediately, the sound of running feet and happy giggling.

"Kissing! Can you imagine they were kissing like a couple? Hahahaha!"

"Hee hee hee!"

When enraged Siegfried managed to unlock the door and jolted it, the hallway was totally empty.

"Kids..." he grumbled, thanking gods for himself that the fire calmed down and Hilda couldn't see him blushing.

"Yes..." and Hilda suddenly burst in relieved laughter, immediately infecting Siegfried with it.

But next morning the sense of humor completely abandoned Siegfried, when the first thing he saw, looking through the window, was the gigantic words on the snow, right under the windows, neatly rounded with childish hand: "Siegfried + Hilda = Love And Kisses!!!" With three exclamation marks.

"Hagen! I'll nail you to the wall by your ears, you little pest!"

Finally it ended that Siegfried always took Hagen together to the castle visits from now on. With such an ace in Hagen's sleeve - 'if you leave me, I'll tell father and Signy what you and Hilda were doing!' - he felt invincible. And finally Hagen, being the only one entrusted (though accidentally) into the matter of things, become his brother's confessor in them, the only one Siegfried dared to share certain thoughts with.

"I am going to be the strongest warrior in Asgard," Siegfried declared once, during his usual training with Hagen.

Hagen was already sure his brother was the strongest in Asgard and nobody could ever defeat Siegfried Volsung.

"Hilda needs to be protected," Siegfried continued, dodging his brother's blows. "She is the Queen, but anyway the weak woman... hey! Watch your defense, Hagen! Who opens like that?"

Hagen stopped fighting; some thought flashed across his mind.

"And who will protect Freya?"

"Well, I don't know. It might be you, for example. It seems you and her can't be told apart recently."

Hagen didn't pay attention to brother's banter.

"She is the princess and a woman. She needs to be protected, too. If you will be Hilda's protector, then I will be Freya's. And I am going to become a strong warrior, too - maybe even stronger than you... yes. I decided - it will be me, the strongest warrior in Asgard!"

Siegfried laughed, light-hearted.

"Want to outmatch me, mousey? Well, well... I'm looking for that eagerly. Now, shall we proceed? Because if you want to be the strongest warrior, you must train much more than you do now. I am older, and if you want to catch up with me, try hard."

Siegfried, self-confident and careless like any teenager, forgot that conversation the next day, but Hagen took his words very seriously.

He knew his brother was very powerful. Also he knew that Siegfried's power was unusual. This subject was not discussed in the family, yet everyone knew Siegfried was special; his power consisted not only of the strength and the skills, there was something more. And Hagen, believing he lacked that 'more', decided to overtake his brother differently: by the hard work.

Months of grueling training followed.

Freya, who now rarely had a chance to spend time with her friend, sulked and sometimes refused to play with Hagen, when he finally was finding spare time. Hagen suffered silently; it was all for her sake and she would realize this one day, he was repeating for himself.

It was Freya who gave up first.

"Hagen! Why are you fighting stones, silly?" Freya shouted at him from the terrace, where she was looking down at Hagen, who just broke solid looking rock into crumbles. "Why are you always so busy? Training, training, training... and no time at all for me."

"I want to become the most powerful warrior in Asgard, Princess Freya," in such serious - in his opinion - moments, Hagen preferred to address his friend with all formality and honor. "And when I become the most powerful warrior, I will protect Asgard, and Queen Hilda, and, and..."

"And?" Freya looked at him expectantly.

"And protect you, to see that no harm will be done to you ever!" Hagen blurted out, blushing in the confusion.

The admiration in Freya's eyes was the best present he could get for his impulsive confession. From now on, his princess treated his training with more patience. The idea of someone being her personal protector was too flattering; and Hagen kept on training, with unchildish perseverance.

It was rewarded. Soon Hagen noticed he had the power to summon and control icy winds; the triumph of this realization didn't put him at ease, but encouraged him to get more persistent training.

But it still had a year to pass, while Siggeir finally convinced Signy on rendering her own power.

"Hagen?" Signy caught the boy right after dinner.

"Yes, Signy?" Hagen shot an impatient glance at her, eager to return to his exercises.

"Stay a while, please. It's time to show you something."

"Is it for long, Signy?"

"It depends on you, and you only."

"Where are we going, Signy?" Hagen asked, while they walked.

"To your new training ground, maybe," and Hagen remained silent, until they reached the cave.

"Why have I never noticed it before? I was here a hundred times!"

"Because this place is open to very few people; it is hidden for everyone who are not introduced, or simply aren't liked."

And when they entered the cave.

"Signy! How beautiful!"

'Beautiful,' Signy smiled for herself. 'Not hot, not unbearable, not spooky. Beautiful. A true Firechild, he is.'

Welcome to my home, my love.

"What is this place?" Hagen looked around, captivated.

"Here lives the fire, Hagen. We are in the very heart of its domain. And the reason why I brought you here, was that I wanted you to come was that you, Hagen, are attuned to the fire much more than to anything else. And if you want to be really powerful, it is the fire you must ask for help."

"You mean I must fight the fire?"

"No, Hagen. You can't fight it - or you can try, but you can never win. The fire will be stronger, always. But you may ask it to cooperate, to add to your own power to unite with me, to become one and it will hear your call, and come to help when you will be in need."

Signy stopped. The flames on lava's surface below them, that were streaming idly, suddenly jumped up, all as one, forming a perfect circle.

"How did you do that?"

"You will learn it, too."

The flames calmed down.

"So, the fire is the most powerful," after a pause, Hagen said, thoughtfully.

"Well, sort of."

"Then I will learn how to fight it."

You are so funny, my love. For that, I love you more and more.

Hagen started to come to the cave everyday; everyday he fought the fire with his freezing wind blows, again and again, never tiring, never minding he sometimes fainted from exhaustion, never giving up. And there came the day, when the ice pack he created in the lava pool, stayed there and wasn't going to melt.

"Finally..." but instead of waited feeling of victory and satisfaction, the wave of wrongness overflowed him.

There was sadness; there was grief, deep and dark; and most of all there was pain. So much pain...piercing, screaming - Hagen lived it all by himself, bending down under the weight of it. Like in a daydream, the boy extended his hand towards the ice pack.

He felt the power filling him all - together new and strangely familiar, warming him inside, dissolving in his blood - and the ice pack melted.

Only then the feeling of the glory came - together with so pleasant relief and feeling of mystery solved and victory achieved.

"That's how it works..." whispered Hagen. Despite of heavy weariness that came immediately upon him, he felt happy as never before.

"I am sorry." leaving, he turned at the entrance. "It will never happen again. I promise."

I know.

Years passed, shared between the fire and Freya. Now, when Hagen finally found his way, he learned how to distribute his time between the family, the training and Freya that annoying, meddling little fool yet the training took the major part.

"Are you the most powerful warrior now, Hagen?"

Freya and Hagen were sitting together next to the fireplace. Not kids anymore, not adults yet... still, friends - but yet they never discussed some new shades of their relationship, both fearing to disturb this fragile unspoken harmony.

"Well... even I do not know, really," Hagen said, half-heartedly. He never matched his power with anyone, neither did he talk with his brother about that.

"I think that you are. No, I am sure that you are." Freya stated with confidence. "Asgard must feel truly safe with a protector like you." Freya continued, looking at the fire in the fireplace. Fresh and powerful flames danced in the fireplace, gaining odd patterns and forms, casting strange shadows on Freya's face. And she stared at the fire, saying nothing, the red dance of flames reflecting in her eyes. Hagen felt uneasy; all his feelings were saying there's something wrong around him. He wanted to say something to disturb the uncanny silence, but then Freya turned to him.

Dancing flames yet kept reflecting in her eyes, shadows laid on her face, trembling and interchanging.

"Would you sacrifice yourself Hagen, if the need occurred? For Asgard, for Hilda...for me?" Freya's voice was sharper and harsher than usual, with almost glasslike tingling in it when she accented 'me'. "Swear me by your life, Hagen, that you would."

Hagen stirred under this clear red gaze. 'What's wrong? I can't recognize her', the thought crossed his mind, but loudly he just said: "I swear. By my life, by all I care - I will always be protecting you."

And that was all true - no matter how weird and scary the circumstances were, Hagen just said what he believed - and not a single shadow of doubt crossed his mind.

"Good. I accept that." Freya looked at him with the same frightening, fire shaded eyes.

"I see you are annoying little Hagen again, sister?" silent appearance of Hilda took Hagen aback and together he felt relieved - it seemed that Hilda had scared all eerie shadows away.

"No, Hilda, not at all!" he protested with the smile.

"Hilda, Hagen just said he will always protect us, and how do you think, is he the most powerful man in Asgard? I think he is, do you? Freya's voice was nonchalant and clear like always, and Hagen decided that his imagination just played nasty trick on him.

"Of course he is, I can never doubt on that," Hilda looked at him coyly, still with a smile; Hagen bowed, feeling flattered, though he knew that was nothing more than a compliment. Siegfried, now a fully grown-up man, had long time ago stopped hiding his feelings, and now his position both next the throne and in Hilda's heart was indisputable and as solid as a rock. Thus it was more than obvious who was really 'the most and the best' according to Hilda, yet her words warmed Hagen a lot. The Queen had this feature to make people feel happy.

"Anyway, Freya, it's dinner time. Hurry up, it's not polite for us to be late." Hilda turned to the door.

"Dinner, at last! Great, I am hungry like a wolf!" Freya jumped up and advanced her sister - half a woman, half a child, who yet didn't care that the modesty at the dinner table was the sign of lady behavior. Her eyes were of the same green blue color, that made Hagen admire it so many times...he shook his head, dispersing last influences of the obsession, and followed the sisters.

In the empty room, the fire calmed down. Like a cat, which just caught its prey and now drowsed, purring in satisfaction.

* * *

The chance for Hagen to prove his power and loyalty came, bringing the disaster altogether.

The statement that everyone accepted Siegfried's candidature to Hilda's hand and heart, had one exception.

Because there always were the Atlings.

The rivals of the Volsung family from time immemorial, the Atlings cherished the hate against the Volsungs like family's treasure. The Atlings were not as powerful as they expected to be, considering family's wealth and wide fame of its strong, undefeatable men. The reason for it was the fame of the Atlings' cruelty, passed from generation to generation. The rumors that followed their ill fame, just added to that the Atlings were feared, but not respected.

They had no real power in the country's rule; for them it was an additional reason to hate the Volsung family madly, since the Volsungs always were close to the throne and their advises were taken into the consideration. For ages, none of the Volsungs ever tried to usurpate the throne, even when they had a real chance, hence the respect for them was growing stronger and firmer with time.

Together with that, the hatred of the Atlings grew.

Fate destined that the Atlings had been close neighbors of the Volsungs. Only a narrow belt of the lands of another family in between prevented the constant bloodshed that would definitely be happening, if they were closer to each other. Actually, not every neighbor would be able to stop the Atlings. But even the Atlings thought twice before interfering with the Niblungs, a well-known family of warlocks and sorcerers, who were believed to control the darkest powers of nature.

Hilda's castle was the only place where both families could occasionally meet, but it was sacred. Any man who dared to incite a conflict within the castle's walls, would be immediately executed and his family banished and dispelled. The Atlings were bad tempered, but not stupid, and the families warily avoided each other while in the castle. Deep-rooted mutual loathing manifested mostly in the mockeries among the servants of each house.

Thus for everyone who saw the conflict between Hagen and Gunnlaug, the eldest son of Bear Thorstein, the head of the Atlings (Gunnlaug was a fully grown and independent man, yet old Bear Thorstein had his nickname appeared not from the empty place and was no way giving the leadership to anyone), it came as an utter shock.

Later people were talking about that Gunnlaug made a mistake, coming out of the cold directly to the fireplace to warm himself up, and drinking a pint of ale at the same time. For the tall and strong Gunnlaug that was not too big amount, usually, but everyone knew drinking while warming up made strange things happen to people. Nevertheless, Gunnlaug showed up in the courtyard at the same time when Hagen entered it.

"What do we have here? Did this little Volsung boy decide to honor us with his presence?"

Hagen was astounded, yet by tradition decided to ignore Gunnlaug. But Gunnlaug stepped in his way.

"Hurrying somewhere, are you, pretty boy? Oh, right...your pretty girl is waiting for you, how could I forget?"

"That's none of your business, Gunnlaug. Now, get out of my way."

"How do you talk to the elders, Volsung? Though it's no wonder. I doubt you are well bred. No, all you Volsungs are able to do is to crawl up to the top, holding on a woman's skirt!" and Gunnlaug burst into loud drunken laughter.

"What did you say?" Hagen's voice trembled in venom. Gunnlaug mistook this for fear, and by this he signed his own death sentence.

"You don't like the truth, Volsung, I see. Well, of course, it is ugly, the truth: that the noble Volsung brothers seek for the crown not like a real man should do, with a sword in hand, but like nothing much more than whores - through the bed!"

In the hush that stood after his words, the silent calm voice of Hagen was clearly heard in the every corner of the courtyard.

"Follow me." Hagen abruptly turned and headed towards the castle gate.

"What, are you going to show me your skills, pretty face? I am afraid I won't be impressed at all - I'm not a woman. However, it probably really doesn't matter for you whom to please on your way to the power and the glory?" Laughing, Gunnlaug added another deadly insult, but followed Hagen outside.

The people advanced, slowly, to the gate, silently looking at backs of two figures, one in front of another, receding towards the forest. The shock was so big that a long time had passed before someone informed Hilda.

The cold wind sobered Gunnlaug; now, he was utterly surprised at himself. What had gotten into his mind to pick on Hagen in the castle, where there were always so many onlookers? But it was too late to change anything, and there was no way back. Gunnlaug never was a coward. Hagen stopped, when he was sure it was impossible to see them from the castle.

"You forgot your sword, Volsung."

"I won't need it."

And Gunnlaug, who was twice heavier and much taller than Hagen was, suddenly suspected his sword was not of any advantage.

The last battle of Gunnlaug was also the shortest.

And by this Hagen could not establish the cause more perfect for the Atlings to realize all that hate, which was mustered for generations. Gunnlaug was the one who started the conflict, that was proved without any doubts. But as Hagen took the punishment on himself, which was a thing strictly forbidden, there was no way to leave the Volsungs aside while dealing with the Atlings, and Hilda hesitated. She ordered that the Atlings needed not to be paid the ransom, nor had they the right to avenge, but this had little effect. The Atlings smelled blood, and it was impossible to stop them now.

The Volsungs armed their men and started to stockpile food and weaponry; none of their men was walking or riding alone anymore. The Niblungs sent an armed patrol to their boundaries. The phantom of war silently hung in the air.

Nobody blamed Hagen for anything, but it wasn't necessary anyway. He knew his fault himself, and - secretly to everyone - he found a way to redeem it, all alone - the same way he started it.

But you won't be alone, my love. I whispered this decision to you, I will share your joy of victory.

* * *

That morning, Hagen did his best to inform every person he met in the castle, that he was going to have some training in the Eida forest, that was next to the border with Niblungs. Especially persistent efforts were on the stables, where people circulated all day like ants; thus half of the castle knew where Hagen Volsung was going to spend most of his day, and though almost none cared, there always should be one or two men who would inform the Atlings, Hagen decided.

In front of the forest, there was a big rocky plain - Niblungs' territory already. There Hagen had stopped. From time to time, he laid his head to the ground, listening; and it didn't take too long before his ear caught the sound of pursuit, much earlier before the troop became visible.

Hagen smiled. To provoke the Atlings to arise for a headless pursuit and get directly into the trap he had set was as easy as he suspected.

The pursuers appeared in Hagen's range of vision. Hagen counted more than 30 riders. Evidently, all the men of the Atlings wanted to take their part in this cruel sport. Bear Thorstein galloped in front of the huddle, he was the first to reach Hagen. Thorstein spurred his horse at Hagen, and reared it up just in front of him. Enormous plate-shaped hoofs whirled few inches away from Hagen's face, yet not a muscle twitched on it.

"Hagen of Volsung house!" Thorstein growled, vexed by Hagen's tranquility. "Prepare to die, you little rascal!"

Hagen answered nothing. His gaze, all unimpressed but a bit of amiable curiosity, locked with Thorstein's bloodthirsty look. Under Hagen's gaze, Thorstein suddenly felt like on pins and needles, and this raged him even more. How he wanted to erase this brazen look off the face of that hated Volsung! But there was no real need to hurry; the boy was all alone and far both from the castle and his own house. Nobody could thwart the Atlings to get their full pleasure from such situation.

The remaining Atlings covered the distance and braced Hagen and Thorstein into the tight ring. They stood there, saying nothing, letting their faces speak instead. And all the faces, even of the youngest Atlings - nothing yet but children - spoke of murder. The murder not as a duty for revenge, no. As an entertainment.

"You won't have the death of a warrior, Volsung," Bear Thorstein continued, mirroring the thoughts of all the Atlings gathered there. "I will hang you on a tree branch and shall watch you squirm, wheeze and loll your tongue like a mad dog; and when I see you are already on Hel's path, I shall loosen the rope, until your life will be back; and then I shall repeat this from the beginning, and again - and again, until you wet your pants and will be groveling on your knees, licking my boots, and begging for death. And even then I won't stop, Volsung, but only when I get bored - and the last thing that can bore me is the death of Volsung!"

Hjolgi, the 9 years old son of Thorstein, was not listening. He was too small to see what was happening from behind the wall of the other men's backs (he barely begged his father off to take him into the pursuit, but finally Thorstein decided there would be no real threat, and Hjolgi must learn what awaited people who dared to insult the Atlings, anyway), and hence only he noticed the behavior of the horses.

Horses were nervous creatures in general; but now even Hjolgi's Whiteskull, the most placid horse in the Atling stables, was filled with some irrational madness, snorted and jerked sideways. The other men seemed completely unaware of that fact, too affected by the vultural anticipation. Neither they noticed the rolling boom that seemed to come from the depths far below, even when Thorstein finished his haughty speech, and the silence stood, because Hagen still said nothing.

"Easy, easy, boy..." Hjolgi patted his horse, but this gave a little effect. Doom, doom, came the drumbeat again, and trembled in stones under their feet. Hjolgi suddenly felt the sharp sense of danger piercing his heart and was ready to cry out; but then spoke Hagen.

"Is it, Thorstein Atling?" Hagen's voice was thoroughly calm, just with a tiny hint of scorn. "Glad to hear that, since it put off my last doubts. You proved yourself to be not only a man of low wit, but also a complete dreg. It is no crime to sweep you off this land, it's the disgusting yet necessary duty of mine. I will fulfill my duty in the name of all Volsungs, who will not have to stain their hands with your filthy family anymore. Because very soon there will be no more Atlings, Thorstein, worthless leader of worthless Atlings!"

Thorstein was expecting an insult - he admitted himself that Hagen was a warrior after all - yet he was stricken dumb in fury by those bold words. So were the other Atlings, except Hjolgi, who now was overwhelmed with supernatural horror - and again, he hadn't managed to yell the warning, since the next moment Thorstein roared: "Get him!", and the angry mob attempted to grab Hagen, all at once.

The same moment Hagen raised his hands up in one quick passionate movement, uplifting his face to the skies at the same time.

"Fire!" his cry, distinct and vigorous, outvoiced the lowery rumbling of the mob.

And immediately, as it was waiting only for this invitation, the earth cracked down - in sharp edged, irregular rays curving away from the point where Hagen stood.

"Doom! Doom!" the drums broke out wildly. The Atlings, now insane and disordered like their horses, tried to bridle them, and to flee away - but then the fire emerged.

It rose, slowly and magnificently, from the depths, like vivid blossoms; and they bloomed, touching and overlaying the riders.

The screams of the Atlings, full of ghastly pain and horror, weirdly mingled with the almost human sounds of agony of dying horses. Some of the riders tried to gallop away, but every time flames crossed their path; bewildered horses leaped around, finally breaking their legs in the cracks.

Hagen stood in the middle of the scorching hell, hands thrown aside, face up the sky, predatory vague smile on his lips.

"Trash to ash! Purify! Purify!" his ecstatic yell trailed around.

"Mine! Mine!" flames roared, claiming the next frustrated victim.

"Trash to ash! Burn it clean!" Hagen laughed, excitedly.

"Kill! Kill!" flames crackled in agreement.

It was beyond belief, but Thorstein somehow managed to stay still alive and even upright; his mind had closed up, refusing to accept reality, and all Thorstein was able to do was looking at Hagen with terror-struck eyes.

He saw how Hagen moved, slowly and unnaturally, like in a trance, hands still extended aside, eyes wide open - but void and blind.

He saw, how Hagen began to move in circle, in repetitive, reeling steps; the fire danced around him, in lazy hypnotic order, some of the fire streams following him, some moving in counter direction, whirling around him tenderly, caressing - and unharming.

He heard Hagen starting to sing, and by his song an out-of-place horrible realization finally reached Thorstein's mind. Hagen was doing the wedding dance.

The cracks in the ground widened. Living torches rolling on the ground, that were just recently people and horses, started to fall down in the flickering redness far below, followed by the corpses of those who had the luck to die before. Only Thorstein still stood, miraculously untouched, in the middle of the searing inferno. Hagen, likewise, felt Thorstein's look on himself, for he gazed back, yet not stopping his dance macabre. The flames around him now were purplish red, as they absorbed the color of that blood they drained here.

"Look, what a perfect funeral bonfire I set for the Atlings, Thorstein!" Hagen shouted with a wide, wild smile. "Do you appreciate my final gift? Are you proud, Thorstein? You should be, because you Atlings are not worthy of such honor, yet I grant it! Show me your gratitude then, Thorstein?" and Hagen burst into laughter - happy, cordial, almost childishly innocent, making the situation even more awkward.

The ground shook under Thorstein's feet, he hadn't managed to keep straight and fell on his knees.

"That's how you will die," Hagen nodded, still smiling. "On your knees. Like the craven that you are."

Thorstein couldn't help but keep staring at Hagen's eyes. They were clear blue, like melting ice on a lake in the bright spring day, and no red flickering of the surrounding fire reflected, neither there was anything human in them. The Hagen that the Atlings chased down, and this creature were not the same person, this Thorstein was still able to understand, but the realization couldn't help him in anything now. He dumbly stared how Hagen, or whatever this monster in front of him was named, raised his hand towards him, in elegant, smooth movement - and with equal refinement the flames that twinned around, flowed up, then around and over, taking a trembling shape of the red spear... Thorstein saw it approaching, but he didn't want to do anything that could prevent the so much desired end.

Exhausted, Hagen fell on his back, his eyes losing their supernatural shining. Immediately, the ground swallowed the burning body of Thorstein, and all of sudden the earth closed, leaving not a single sign of the hellish slaughter that had taken place there. Neither the ground was scorched, nor any corpse was left - all were taken.

Hagen laid, breathing heavily; the snow began to fall, snowflakes danced down his face, melting on his lips and cheeks, clinging on his eyelashes... Hagen followed them, feeling dead tired, unable to move even a finger, until finally he fell into a heavy uneasy sleep.

When he woke up, he felt slightly rested and not frozen up at all (for some reason, Hagen was never able to get cold anyway, and the admiration he received, flattered and pleased him secretly).

When Hagen finally got home, barely conscious, Siegfried hurried to meet him, with a very worried look on his face.

"Hagen, I was looking for you everywhere - I was informed that the Atlings headed into a hunt after you, all as one. Good that you returned. At home, we are invincible. They can come and try to smoke us out, if they dare. But they won't, the cowards!"

"They won't," Hagen repeated in whisper. "They won't, Siegfried. Ever."

Siegfried stopped short.

"Hagen? Have you met them?"

The silence, and eyes fixed to the ground.

"Hagen, answer me!" Siegfried took his brother by his shoulders, shook gently.

"All I can say that they won't go after us anymore. And let me go, Siegfried, please. I am tired."

Siegfried let go.

The absence of the Atlings was reported only the next day, when their worried women appealed to Hilda, pointing at the reason, too. "The reason" was ordered to arrive at the castle and questioned. No, he saw nothing. Met nothing, either. Where have he been? - Training. Where? In the Eida forest. No, the Atlings were not there. One can go and check.

They checked, and of course found no sign of the battle at all. The fact Hagen was unharmed, also added to his innocence - it was hardly possible that one might encounter a battle with Bear Thorstein and be left even unscratched; plus, Bear Thorstein vanished not alone.

Finally it was decided that the Atlings crossed the path of Wild Hunt and now were roaming the skies being a part of it, like all victims of the ghostly hunters. Siegfried didn't ask anything, later, nor did any of the family. Probably they just didn't want to know. And Freya's faith in her beloved was too strong for her to imagine that Hagen could have anything to do with that event. The others, their minds obviously refused to believe this very young man could deal with all the Atlings; nonetheless, Hagen felt how their attitude towards him became more cautious and respectful.

But there was one thing that worried Hagen seriously. He couldn't get away of the feeling, that Alberich Niblung somehow knew, or at least suspected something. The power of the Niblungs was known to be attuned to death, and Alberich seemed to be extremely sensitive to the emanations of death. Besides, it happened on the land of the Niblungs, where they were especially strong. However, the little Niblung never said anything, despite of occasional ironic glances that Hagen sometimes felt on himself. "I know", these glances were saying, and that's why Hagen never dared to take any measures against Alberich. Alberich sensed that, too, and he didn't waste this chance to strengthen his positions in the castle.

But what Hagen wanted to avoid, that didn't pass unnoticed by others of the Volsung family. They did not approve the sudden rise of Alberich, they didn't like how the things started to turn, and decided to do something about it.

"You seem to be very close to Freya for long enough, Hagen," Siegfried said all of sudden, when the family was having dinner.

"Why does it bother you?" Hagen always felt irked, when other people tried to talk with him about his feelings.

"Because father and I decided, if it is the mature feeling, and it seems serious enough, you should act more decisively."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we think you should engage her at first, and later, of course... Or people would start to talk, you know them."

Hagen looked around. Siegfried, Siggeir, Signy - all they looked at him, silent and very serious. Unexpectedly for himself, Hagen felt like the cornered animal, and struck in defense, adequately.

"They would, wouldn't they? Then why aren't you concerned about Hilda and you? You are courting her much longer than I...than I know Freya, even - so please mind your own business for a change, Siegfried!"

"Hilda is the Queen and the High Priestess of Odin!" Siegfried raised his voice, too, astonished and angered by Hagen's sudden aggression. "It is not us who decide when she should marry, but Odin himself, and this must be approved by all jarls, afterwards. It will happen one day, I grant you this - but Freya and you are free in your decisions, and I don't like you snapping at me like that!"

"Then leave me alone!" Hagen bolted up off the table, overturning his chair, and dashed out of the room, slamming the door with the full force.

"Well...who could guess he would react like that?" Siggeir said, after an uneasy pause. "I thought he was captivated, at least..."

"He is, to be sure," Siegfried said. "He just proved now, that he is not as mature as we considered him to be. But we cannot wait anymore; I dislike how Alberich affects Hilda, I dislike how he gets close to Freya, and I dislike him overall." He turned to Signy. "You should talk to Hagen, mother. He always listened to you more than to us."

"I will," nodded Signy, who bore her own purposes. After the disappearance of the Atlings, Hagen closed up and estranged, which worried Signy much more than policy matters of her men.

She found Hagen in his room; he was curled up in the furs next to the fireplace, looking numbly at the dancing flames - like always, when he was feeling sad and hurt.

"So, they sent you to persuade me?" he said, without turning to look; Signy was the only person allowed to enter his room without knocking. She smiled - Hagen never was easily tricked.

"I just came to talk." She sat next to him. "Say... why such reaction? Don't you love her?"

Hagen shuddered, and Signy put her hand on his shoulder, soothingly.

"I do," Hagen glanced at her, sideways.

"Maybe you are not sure about your feelings? There is someone else, could I be right?"

"No!" Hagen blushed. "It always was just her."

"Then what is it?"

Hagen shifted uneasily. How could he explain that feeling of wrongness, even of a sacrilege that came upon him, when thinking about that marriage? How, when even himself didn't know where that feeling came from?

"I... I really do not know. Sorry."

Signy patiently waited for him to continue.

"You see... I am afraid. Not like that other men say experiencing before they wed, no. It's like I feel it might hurt Freya"

"Like the Atlings?" Signy asked silently.

He draw the sharp gasp of breath.

"What really happened then, Hagen? Can you tell me?" Signy never expected he would respond to such straightforward request, but nevertheless he did.

"I don't remember, Signy. Really. Everytime I try to recall my memories, I remember only that I was there, and then all I can see is the fire. It all goes red. The fire...that's all."

Signy remained silent, and he proceeded.

"That's probably why I am afraid. It was me who was there, but at the same time...not me. And the worst thing is, that I liked that feeling, Signy! I was not myself anymore, I couldn't control anything, yet I liked it! I hate to think now this all can repeat itself, and at the same time I long for it!" Hagen turned to her with desperate pain in his eyes, altogether with such childish hope and belief that she could help.

Meanwhile, Signy was fighting the shock his words put on her. Her Hagen, her little boy was suffering so much - because of the power he was bearing inside, a power much stronger that was ever encountered in her or any Firechild she knew. The power of the fire upon him devastated him, instead of helping. But why?

He is mine

The remembrance struck Signy like a lightning. How could she forget, how greedily the fire claimed its rights upon Hagen when he was born? She should have guessed then that Hagen was going to be special even for a Firechild. Maybe Signy knew that all the time - but desperately tried to deny it to herself? The fire had set up a unique role for Hagen, and whatever that purpose might be, Signy helped it, introducing Hagen to the fire. But could she have acted differently, was she free?

"Then I think you should marry Freya. She is your only hope." Signy said slowly, instinctively looking at the fire with caution.

The flames continued their lazy flitter, without anything unusual. All seemed casual and peaceful, and Signy relaxed. She was all sure Hagen must take a risk. Being happy - and Freya would make and keep him happy - Hagen would keep his soul occupied, and there would be no need for the fire, that lived inside, to declare upon him. Maybe with time Freya's influence would make him to control it, even - if Freya, not the fire, would become the most important to him. But if he stayed alone... Signy shivered. Then the fire most probably would take more and more of him with every time he let his power free, so with every time there would be less and less of Hagen, until... something was born. Something so powerful she couldn't imagine; something Just inhuman. And then the fate of the Atlings would seem a child's game.

"I think so, too," Hagen looked at her, eyes shining with calm inner peace. Again, pain gripped Signy's heart, seeing how much of Aud's there was in him. "I don't know what has gotten on me. Probably I just don't like it when Siegfried starts to act like he has a right to decide everything for me."

* * *

The marriage proposal was accepted and approved by Hilda without any problems. She always knew that it would happen sooner or later, just was a bit worried about Freya's age (Freya herself were assuring her hotly that her age was just perfect). So the families agreed on a long term engagement, to much disappointment of Freya.

The engagement party was held with all necessary royalties. Alberich dispersed the gossips about his own hopes, by greeting the engaged couple with all sincerity, saving the fact that nobody saw Alberich acting sincerely before.

Both Signy and Hagen were strangely alert and strained, anticipating something to happen, something they could not understand but only feel. Though, nothing happened, and they left their irrational anxiety behind.

You left me no other choice, my love.

A few months passed, which Hagen spent mostly with Freya. He took part in her peaceful occupations, accompanying her to her journeys, patiently waiting while she admired flowers, meadows and lakes, posing to her shy attempts to draw and encouraging even shyer attempts to sing. He felt how these little pleasures he never had time for before, were making him love Freya more and more. He didn't miss his training, and avoided even to speak about it.

The winter came; it happened to be vigorous and cruel even for Asgard. And one day Siggeir hadn't returned home.

They found him after a few days of futile searching, far from the home. Probably, the horse was frightened by the wolves, large quantities of which were spotted recently; they were brave and unaware of coming very close to the houses. Anyway, the nights were so freezing that nobody could survive in the open air.

Signy, who was in the search troops, numb of despair and caring little about herself, was already feeling sick during Siggeir's funeral. Right after it, she got worse and faded away in a few days. Superstitious people started to talk, behind the backs of Siegfried and Hagen, about a plague on the Volsung house, but the brothers were too broken to react.

The gossips doubled, when Siegfried fell off his horse and broke his leg. But then Hilda showed her royal personality, strictly ordering all silly talk to be stopped. The fact that she personally took care of Siegfried, nursing him, added to that: if the priestess of Odin was unafraid, it might not be anything supernatural; besides, Siegfried was recovering surprisingly fast.

I won't let you escape my revenge, Siegfried.

Thus Hagen was the only one left in the Volsung house from all the family, and Hilda, being sensitive like every woman in cases like that, told him to move into the castle, temporarily - until Siegfried would recover. Hagen desperately wanted to be left alone, but that was an order of the Queen, and he had to obey. The order happened to be for the good, because only Freya's silent but determined will to help him through all this dragged Hagen out the swamp of his dismal moods.

"I accepted the fact they are no more... it took me some time, but I did." Hagen and Freya were sitting in Freya's room, in their habitual place - on the fur heap next to the fireplace. "But now another feeling creeps around - I feel like I am responsible for their... for that they are gone, and I can't get it off my mind."

Freya touched his hand, gently.

"I know. When my parents died, - I was just a small girl, then - I remember I was blaming myself all the time. I was bad, and now they left me. So I tried to be good to make them come back...but they never did, and I tried even more...until I finally understood it was not my fault, and they didn't want to abandon me. But it took time, and it will take time for you too, Hagen. For adults, it is the responsibility you feel instead of the guilt, but it will pass; and there are things that help - I, for instance, met you..."

Hagen looked at Freya, with amazement. For the first time he heard from her something so serious and sorrowful.

"And one thing that I realized then," Freya held back his gaze, "is that death is evil. Evil and it shouldn't happen, and though I have no power on death, I must try to fight it. I don't want death to creep around me; do you, Hagen?"

"No!" he shook his head, in awe.

"Then you should fight it, too! I don't want you to be the most powerful warrior anymore, Gunnlaug was the proof strong enough for me to realize it. Be with me, protect Asgard...just don't kill, Hagen...please."

"Not even to protect you?" Hagen smiled bitterly.

"Not even then! You are strong enough to defend me without killing people. And besides," Freya suddenly changed the oppressing subject of the conversation, "just look at me. I am weak, humble and unimportant. Who could ever need to harm me?"

"Weak you may be, but definitely neither humble nor unimportant," Hagen denied with a smile.

"Really? So you are saying I'm important to...someone?" Freya glanced up at him, with a coy twinkle in her eye. Hagen didn't answer; he looked at Freya, like he saw her the first time, admiring her beauty, her peaceful and soothing nature - very right nature - because he didn't want to bring death anymore, either, after the, he wouldn't think about them, now, when Freya was so close, looking at him with her clear faithful eyes...

Hagen leant to her, forgetting everything, feeling how the world stopped being of any matter; she reflected his movement; concerned, serious gazes locked together, faces so close...

...the fire sprang out of the fireplace and reached Freya in one leap, immediately settling on her long hair.


No real damage was done, Hagen's reaction was swift as a cat's. Soon he managed to calm Freya down, but the moment was lost.

* * *

Somewhere far away, the boy was smiling at his friend, who was chattering enthusiastically about something. Nothing too special was there about him, save that he looked slightly too serious and melancholic for his young age. He didn't like to remember the reasons that made him to mature so suddenly, and was hoping such things would never happen again.

Welcome to my game, little warrior of ice.

* * *

"Hagen, have you seen Hilda today?" Siegfried looked seriously distraught. "From the morning she went to her usual pray, she just disappeared."

Hagen shook his head.

"I wonder where could she be? Maybe you could go and ask Freya?"

"Sure," Hagen nodded. He was under some mysterious tension all day, and time spent with Freya always made him feel quieter and relaxed.

And not only he was acting strange; the day was weird and affected most of people in the castle. Siegfried was rude and snappy; Alberich, who usually preferred to live in the castle's library, was absent half the day, and returned all aroused and full of nervous activity. He milled around the castle, visiting places to which he had never been before - like the stables and the kitchen, with no real purpose, and always for too short a time to be inquired about his strange behavior.

The feeling of something strange about to happen floated in the air - and that 'something' happened, when Hagen was halfway to Freya's rooms. The feeling made him to turn around immediately to the exit. The power of the mental order was so strong, that Hagen rushed away, not even really seeing where he was going, and when he came round, he found himself standing in his Fire Cave.

The flames danced, greeting the long missed friend, but today there was something more in their motion - some prophecy; and Hagen wasn't surprised, when the shape emerged from the depths of the fire, and stood in front of him, glowing and casting almost visible power.

The shape was that of a horse, standing on its hind legs, the other six were piercing the air - and there came the time for Hagen to be astonished to the very depths of his heart.


One of the legendary God Robes, attuned to the Big Dipper constellation's stars; Sleipnir's Star was Beta Merak. The legend of the God Robes, that showed up only when Asgard was in mortal danger, was passed from generation to generation, and long ago it became nothing but a beautiful legend. And now it appeared to be the truth...which meant Asgard was facing the ultimate threat.

The Robe exploded; the dazzling light blinded Hagen, and when he recovered, he found himself being armed with it. The Robe didn't burn him like it had to, considering the way it appeared. It fit Hagen perfectly, moreover, it fused with him, becoming an inseparable part of him, pleasantly warming and adding to his own power, strengthening him to the supreme.

He, Hagen, was chosen by Odin to be the God Warrior of Sleipnir, he earned the Robe, which would turn up only when Asgard was...

The pride changed to terror. Hagen rushed away, fast like Sleipnir himself, sensing how the Robe improved his speed and perseverance. In a few minutes, he was back to the castle.

He arrived not alone. Seven figures reached the gates at the same time. Hagen recognized Siegfried, and wasn't surprised at all seeing the Alpha God Robe of Fafnir on him. What was much stranger, that Alberich had gotten a God Robe, too. However, the God Robe of Megrez was known as death-empowered, so it was normal, after all, that it had chosen Alberich of the Niblung family.

And upstairs, looking at them, there stood Hilda.

Hagen stared at her in awe. The Queen had changed like all of them, but that change was different. Not only was Hilda wearing black and red, and holding her priestess's staff, which she usually avoided to use. He eyes were different, too. Savage and cruel, they were unreal for the Hilda that Hagen always knew, but this Hilda they fit perfectly.

There wasn't Hilda the peacekeeper in front of them. What they were facing was the warleader, all ready to strike, out of reach and frightening in her power.

As one, the God Warriors kneeled.

"I decided that my people are worthy to be happy," Haughty and powerful, Hilda's voice clearly sounded in the open air. "For too long our role was to be the last resort of civilization in the North. Our nature is too harsh on us, and so are our lives, thus I want it to change. I even know exactly how, and I have already began to work on it. But there are people that don't want us to live like we deserve. They set the rules for the entire world; they oppress other people, and they will try to hinder me and ruin my vision of the world by any means. They put us into this freezing prison, and our escape will anger them - because we are breaking the rules. Their rules! But I decided - there will be no more alien power on Asgard. Our people deserve to be free like they were born. And you, my trusted warriors - you will be that power our oppressors will break onto. With you, I will make Sanctuary, the citadel of terror, fall. And the world of sun and warmth will be open to us."

Hagen listened, both scared and fascinated. Hilda's words went straight to his heart. To lead the people to a bright future, defeating the dark forces - what could be more honorable? Hilda finally realized that she was the mighty Queen - and Odin recognized that, by granting her such a glorious task. And he, Hagen, was among the chosen to fulfill this high purpose!

On their way to the Castle, Hagen noticed the golden ring on Hilda's finger. It looked far too big for her thin and delicate fingers, and differed clearly from the overall dark outfit of Hilda.

"Yours?" Hagen nodded at the ring, addressing Siegfried.

Siegfried shook his head.

"It probably came together with her and our Robes."

Behind them, Alberich flashed a short, nasty smile.

"By the way, what's Sanctuary?"

"I have no clue. Hilda will explain later, I think."

Sanctuary appeared to be in Greece, somewhere far away. It belonged to some goddess; Hilda depicted her as an evil entity who lived in an almost heavenly place, holding everyone together in terror. Her warriors lived only for battles, and with joy and pleasure they killed everyone who dared to doubt the rightness of the orders of their goddess. Hagen listened, at the same time examining the other warriors.

Apart from Siegfried and Alberich, he also knew Syd of the Zeta Mizar Star, the offspring of some powerful jarl somewhere in Southern Asgard. Hagen had seen him in the castle a few times, but they weren't close. The others were mystery for him, they even didn't look human - Thor, four times bigger than any of them, Mime, who's unnatural slimness and dazzling beauty betrayed him as being of alves origin; and Fenrir was giving him creeps overall. But every one of them was one of Odin's warriors, and Odin knew whom to choose.

Freya didn't participate in the council. Hagen didn't dare to disturb Hilda - when she put this warlike image on, a deep distance came between them.

Freya found him herself, after the council was over.

"Hagen!" Do you see what is happening?" she rushed to him, very worried. To his slight disappointment, she didn't even notice Hagen's new Robe.

"Of course. Asgard is encountering an enemy, and..."

"What enemy? Just you look at Hilda!" Freya cut him. "I can't believe my eyes!"

"I saw her - well, she has changed, but a war comes upon us, so she must have been changed. Now she is our War Leader, and acts accordingly. What's so scary, Freya?"

"She is totally different, can't you see?" Freya was almost screaming. "I cannot recognize her, my own sister! Trust me, Hagen, this change isn't normal - can you believe she plans to attack some faraway country? For Odin's sake, what have they done to us?"

"They are evil, Freya," Hagen tried to explain with all his patience. "They don't want us to lead a better life."

"I never noticed our life was so bad, Hagen! Yes, it's cold, yes, it's merciless - but it is our home! I don't want to live in some warm but strange place, especially not on account of other people's lives!"

Hagen was amazed by her hot speech. Freya always was the last to persuade anyone to believe her own truth, and last to argue. And now, so much passion came from some hidden resources of her, utterly unexpected...

"But I remember you saying you hate this cold so much, that you even hate your own homeland sometimes? Aren't you supposed to be glad?" he ventured.

"And do you remember what Hilda said, then? That it is our place where we belong, and that we must enjoy those little pleasures of ours, instead of envying other people theirs. So how can you explain what she says now?"

"Odin's will, that is. Your sister is just the messenger, Odin speaks to us through her. If he decided so..."

"Odin? Hagen, haven't you noticed how Hilda speaks now? 'I will', 'I decide', I, I, I!... And not a word of Odin!"

"Freya, but it's just language. Hilda is Odin's priestess, that you can't deny - and who are we to question and doubt the decisions of Odin? I understand that you are scared by the change, but I am sure you will get used to it. Now, please go get some rest...this day was long for all of us." Hagen's voice was stricter than the situation required. Freya's behavior worried him, but also got on his nerves.

"Are you blind, Hagen? But as you say, this day was long. Let's wait for tomorrow, and maybe then you will see." Freya turned and ran away, leaving Hagen no chance to stop her. Despite his concern, he decided against following Freya. In such a hysterical mood, she wouldn't listen to him, and anyway Hagen was at loss, not knowing how to deal with such an unfamiliar Freya.

A few days that followed passed in all-day training. Hagen, like the other warriors of Odin, had to learn to control and use his new powers granted by the Robe. At the end of each day, he was usually so tired that he barely crawled to his room and fell in a deep, dreamless sleep. He didn't see much of Freya those days, always returning too late at night from his training. But finally, his tired consciousness received the message, that Freya's constant absence at the dinner table was not normal. Therefore he stole a bit of time one day, and went to see her.

The door of Freya's room was locked. Slightly surprised, Hagen knocked.

"Who's there?" Freya's voice reached him.

"It's me, Hagen. Would you please let me in? I know it's late, but I have bee n so busy recently, forgive me..."

"No, I can't." Freya cut him short, the voice breaking with apparent struggles to hold tears.

"But why? Are you so mad at me? I said I am sorry - the time was really hard on me," Hagen was utterly shocked.

"I didn't say I don't want to let you in, I said I can't. I am locked in, Hagen." Freya said, so silently, that Hagen barely managed to hear.

"What?...But...what happened?" Hagen stood, unable to say anything more. Freya was locked in her room, like a guilty and punished child?

"Hilda said I am making her mad," Freya was now sobbing openly. "And all I have said was that she changed so much that she looked wrong to me, I cannot recognize her anymore... I just tried to share my thoughts with her, like I am... was used to... you know we never hid anything from each other. But now she...she..." Freya burst into uncontrollable tears.

"I will go and talk to Hilda immediately." Hagen couldn't listen to that anymore. Infuriated, he charged towards Hilda's quarters.

"Hagen, stop! Where do you think you are breaking in like that?" Siegfried was on guard at the entrance.

"Let me pass, Siegfried, I need to talk to Hilda."

"She is resting, and ordered that no one should bother her." Siegfried stepped in Hagen's way, alert and determined to stop him.

"And I don't give a damn! Do you know what she has done to Freya? I say, let me pass, now!"

"Calm down, Hagen. Please." Siegfried took Hagen by his shoulders, but Hagen shook his hands off. "And yes, I know. Freya is locked in under Hilda's orders."

Hagen lost his gift of speech for the next few minutes. Siegfried, meanwhile, avoided to look into Hagen's eyes, confused and somewhat ashamed.

"You knew all the time? And, I guess, so did the others?" Hagen said with cold fury in his voice. "So it was me alone who was not informed, right? And why is this, let me ask?"

"We didn't want to upset you and distract you from the training," Siegfried muttered. "Now the principal task is to be prepared to..."

"The hell with the training! Wanted it or not, you upset me, and right now my principal task is to ask Hilda why she treats her sister that way. And I will, no matter what you do." Hagen pushed his brother away, but Siegfried seized him by his waist.

"Hagen, listen to me!" Siegfried raised his voice, his eyes, grey and emotionless usually, now burned feverishly. Hagen glared daggers back. "Do you think I like this situation? I am as surprised as you are, if not say more - that's my wife-to-be acting like that, remember? But I try not to get upset; all I am asking of you is to give Hilda a little time. Odin gave her a mission that obviously found her unprepared, and now the situation is a bit too hard for her. That's why she is like that. A little time - and she will regain herself, I am sure." Siegfried took Hagen's head with both hands, dragging him closer, forcing their looks to meet, making Hagen notice how much desperation and loss was in Siegfried's eyes. Never before, had Hagen seen his brother so confused, and the unusual sensation cooled him a bit.

"A little time, that's all I am asking," Siegfried repeated. "Please, trust me, Hagen. Have I ever asked anything wrong of you?"

"No." Hagen had to admit that. He struggled free. "I suppose, I can believe you. But, Siegfried, - if it stays like that... please don't forget I am here to protect Freya like you protect Hilda."

"Thank you," Siegfried was apparently much relieved. "I am sure that won't happen again. Hilda has sent Syd to scout in the enemy territory, and he is not back yet, so she is on the edge...and Freya suddenly picked on Hilda too harshly at the wrong time, hence Hilda snapped. Thank you again for trusting me. I promise I won't fail it."

Hagen nodded briefly and turned on his heels. He went straight to his rooms, fearing to tell Freya about the conversation that just happened. But Siegfried was his older brother, the most admired example in his life, the only family, the best friend. And Hagen could never object him.

Syd returned the next day, and Hilda summoned all God Warriors to stay by herself. Not used to such dry and formal behavior, Hagen felt uneasy and was reluctant to talk about Freya. But he was now a God Warrior, he calmed himself. The duties of a God Warrior must be different from that of Hagen Volsung, Queen Hilda's future brother in law.

"The evil Goddess is truly powerful," Syd reported, when in the evening Hilda had summoned her small council. "Her warriors... well, altogether they are not that bad. But one by one - I think they won't be a big problem for us."

"When are we going to strike at them?" Siegfried asked.

Hilda gave him ironical look.

"Why should we fight them at their ground? Be patient, Siegfried, and they will come here, I am sure."

Hilda was right - the capture of the enemy spy was reported next morning.

"So soon," Hilda smiled at the news. "Well, come, my Warriors. I am sure you wish to meet our enemy face to face. And, of course, we should question him."

Hagen left the prison, totally defiled. He still hesitated to go to Freya for comfort, being afraid to tell her that he did nothing for her. He didn't want to upset Siegfried by sharing his certain thoughts, and had no friends among other God Warriors, thus he held grim thoughts, that settled in his heart after the 'questioning', all alone.

'The questioning' was assigned to be performed by Thor, simply because he was the biggest and the strongest among them all. Despite the fact, that enemy spy came to Asgard with evil intentions, Hagen felt a pity to him. The spy was very young and didn't look evil at all. But the looks could be deceptive; Hagen never suspected that Hilda could enjoy watching the torture - but she seemingly was enjoying it, when even Thor himself was apparently disgusted by his duty.

Next morning Hagen's compassion faded into nothingness, though. The spy managed to escape at night, and he took Freya with him.

People whispered behind Hagen's back, that it was Freya who freed the captive, and she ran away with him on her own will. Hagen refused to believe such nonsense, so did Hilda. She declined Siegfried's offer to go on pursuit; but when the guard men returned, confused and with empty hands, Hilda changed her mind and commanded the God Warriors to be ready.

"There's something I cannot understand, and I am going to discover it personally." She harshly mounted her horse, refusing Siegfried's help, and they left for the search.

All the way they went, silently, affected by Hilda's mute but otherwise clearly visible fury. Hilda was very confident in the direction, asif she knew where to search, and led them to one of her places to pray - one of the most sacred, where she always went alone and only on special occasions. It was believed that the place was holy, Odin honored it with his presence, sometimes. And finding a bunch of strangers in that place was the most impudent sacrilege; Hagen felt how a holy wrath rose in him, and he sensed his fellow warriors being under similar emotions.

Hilda's anger, therefore, was almost solid - and the dark clouds, thundering, crowded in the sky above her. The lighting struck down, directly at Hilda, causing no damage, but covering the priestess with a glowing, pale blue halo; through his Robe Hagen sensed how Hilda added her own power to that granted from above, forming a blue sphere, humming menacingly.

'How could Freya ever doubt, that Hilda is not obeying Odin's will, when Odin gives such a clear sign of his approval, endowing Hilda with such a divine power?' Hagen wondered, looking at the thundering whirlpool in the sky above them. "It is the sign of Odin, nothing else."

The blue sphere shot forward, scattering people on its way, heading purposely at the small female figure, that glowed with her own aura; there it stopped, spinning - and was shattered by the similar sphere of the newcomer woman.

That was the goddess from abroad, Hagen understood. She seemed to be as powerful as Hilda was - and why should she be weak, Hagen was thinking with bitter irony, while the weird duel between both women continued. Evil was always strong and powerful - by this, it tempted people to join it, and often succeeded. And only truly powerful evil could control the world. But the truth was on their side, and Hagen firmly believed it would help them to withstand.

The warriors of both fighting sides, little by little, got infected by the feelings of their leaders. Siegfried fixed a fiery gaze on the one of warriors - very young, nothing much but a kid. Most of the opponents were kids, Hagen realized, and this made him frown in disgust - how mean it was to infect those kids with evil and send them to fight. However, the boy held Siegfried's gaze boldly, his eyes glaring in the future delight of the encounter. Another boy from the enemy's camp, the one with the chain weapon, apparently developed a particular hatred from the first sight of Mime, and Syd got involved in a gesture war with the enemy, behind which Hagen, with his heart going frozen, noticed Freya. No doubt, that was the same runaway captive, with whom she... who kidnapped her, Hagen corrected himself.

The mad whirling of power spheres stopped as suddenly as it began. Hilda sensed that the emotions of her warriors threatened to escape out of the control, and in her opinion ite was not the time to let them loose, yet. The tensed silence stood.

"What is it with you Freya?" said Hilda in a loud and impatient voice. "Come here to your people and your sister, where you belong!"

"You are not my sister!" Freya stepped forward, bravely. "This creature in front of me is a strange monster, not my sister at all. My sister is a good and just person, and she would never attack strangers with no reason!"

"Really?" Hilda's voice trembled in anger. "Then let it be - I reject you, Freya, the traitor against your family and people! From now on, I don't have a sister anymore."

Freya gasped in horror. Hagen stopped listening, his mind in the ultimate shock. What was happening there? Freya's words were respectless and bad, but to give her away so cruelly? Couldn't Hilda see that Freya was in an affected state?

Meanwhile, the alien woman left the group and entered Hilda's place of prayer. Her warriors rushed after her, but with one commanding movement she broke down the bridge behind her, leaving it like an island.

"What is she doing?" Siegfried frowned, trying to get a better view.

"Apparently, she wants to match her power with Odin," Hilda shrugged indifferently.

The newcomer was doing well, the warriors had to admit. The icebergs in the sea stopped melting; the bare ground around the group of the invaders recovered it's icy coating.

"Somebody must stop her," Hilda said, with a distant menace in her voice.

Thor, always ready to serve, launched one of his axes. The axe scattered the group on the coast easily like toys, but right in front of the woman it stopped, hesitating; and then it returned back to Thor, leaving the woman completely untouched.

"She is that heathen Goddess of Evil, no doubt about that," Thor said. "Only a being of truly divine origin is able to stop my axes, Lady Hilda."

"As if it matters anyway," Hilda shrugged, suddenly uncaring. "Goddess or not, soon she will freeze to death. Our land is not for her fastidious nature. Let's go back - we have nothing to do here anymore."

"Won't we attack them?" Siegfried asked.

"We will...but not right now. Patience is a virtue, dear Siegfried - so let's wait, and maybe our uninvited guests will get lost, or will separate from each other. Why spoil the entertainment?" Hilda's sharp laughter made Hagen shiver.

On the way back, everyone carefully avoided to look at Hagen. This hidden compassion was driving him insane, and it cost him a lot of willpower to stay calm.

"So, I still don't get it," Alberich was first to break the silence, when all warriors assembled in the room. "Was there a kidnapping or not?"

"There wasn't," Mime gave an indifferent remark. "Freya left us by her own will."

"You are lying!" Hagen snarled at Mime, leaping up.

"Why should I?" Mime looked at him, surprised. And no matter how Hagen wanted to object, he knew that Mime said the truth. Cold and emotionless Mime had the frightening ability to read people's mind, and he was too indifferent about everyone, including Hagen, to lie.

"Thor," the sudden presence of Hilda ignited the arising conflict. "Now, go and stop those intruders. By any means, mind you."

"At your command," Thor bowed and left the room. Hagen felt a sharp sting of envy - why it was not him chosen to deal with the enemy? Especially now, when he wanted to avenge his shame so much?

Siegfried shot a glance at him, with a brother's intuition unmistakably guessing Hagen's feelings.

"Wouldn't it be reasonable to sent someone else, too, Lady Hilda? In case the enemy disperses - we must be sure we won't miss any of them."

"Sensible talking," Hilda approved. "I grant you the right to choose, then. Report to me on how it will be going." She bowed, acknowledging the kneeling of her Warriors, and left.

"Hagen Merak, I order you to follow Thor and stop the enemy, if they try to sneak further into our country," Siegfried turned to Hagen and smiled briefly at his grateful look. Hagen turned to leave immediately, but stopped as Siegfried's asked him to wait a while.

Siegfried came closer, examining and adjusting Hagen's armor, which really didn't require any adjustment; squeezed Hagen's hand, secretly.

"Be careful, Hagen, will you?" whispered.

"It is he who must be careful," answered Hagen, darkly. He bowed to his fellow God Warriors, shot the short sly glance at Siegfried, and left.

Siegfried had always known how to hide his emotions and not let them be visible, when he didn't want them to be. Now, nobody could guess how much worried he was, either.

* * *

Hagen thanked Odin, silently, when he recognized the same boy, who kidnapped Freya in the lonely figure, running towards Hilda's castle. Somehow he escaped Thor, and that was for good. There was still justice in this world, and Hagen would have the chance to get his revenge.

Despite of his young age, the enemy warrior was a true master of his art. Hagen saw the proof of that when the warrior blocked his sudden attack almost with light speed. It relieved Hagen somewhat: the thought that Freya could be attracted by a complete wimp was even more unpleasant than the fact of the insult she had done to him, running away with the stranger. But in a fight, that was a serious disadvantage.

The enemy warrior introduced himself as Cygnus Hyoga, Bronze Saint of Athena. Like it had to be in a proper duel, Hagen introduced himself, too, adding a few compliments on his own power, including that no one whom he had encountered in a battle, had survived. It was all true, because indeed no one of the Atlings had escaped then, near the Eida forest, the nasty remembrance shot across Hagen's mind, leaving him ashamed. As if he had anything to brag about, he thought uneasily, and the duel began.

Soon Hagen discovered that Hyoga controled icy weapons as perfectly as he himself. Apparently, the boy trained in the cold lands, too. Hagen deflected his blows easily, but his own attacks were deflected with equal ease.

However, the words uttered by the Cygnus warrior during the next pause after some more futile blows, caught Hagen unprepared.

"Hagen Merak - even if I should die, I will get your Odin sapphire!"

"My sapphire? For what sake do you need my sapphire?" Highly confused, Hagen looked at the gem on his belt, managing to ask only such an out-of-place question.

"When we will have all seven sapphires, we will destroy the ring of Nibelung that possessed Hilda. We cannot let her..."

Hagen listened, absent-mindedly and with despise. Of course, Hilda was evil, so were her warriors. Sure, what else could they say? The arguments, why the iron fist must keep the whole world pressed, were always easily found by them, who were on the ruling side and who wanted to keep the situation like that, forever.

"...and I want stop Freya's suffering," Cygnus warrior finished, immediately returning Hagen to full attention.

"I forbid you to talk about her like she is your girlfriend!" In a wild rage, Hagen went at his opponent; some rational part of his mind admitted, that Hyoga most probably teased him on purpose, aiming at his self-control, but now Hagen just couldn't stop. With all his hate and wrath, he summoned his power, going out of his way, and imprisoned the enemy in a glacier, ten time bigger than it was really necessary.

From which Hyoga freed himself almost immediately, and stood in front of Hagen again, unharmed.

"Poor Freya..." Now, when Hyoga discovered such a weak spot in Hagen's defense, he used it with no limits. He told Hagen how he got into the castle, and how Freya let him free - and his speeches were making Hagen to fling in blows, blinded by fury, which were easily avoided. He kept saying that all he was doing was for Freya's sake, and that Freya trusted in Hagen, and that she asked him to talk with Hagen and to convince him to join Athena's side...and Hagen chased Hyoga around helplessly, failing and missing, until he felt draining exhaustion coming upon him.

Tired, Hagen stopped and tried to grab on his common sense. He must stop reacting like a clueless child. No doubt that Hyoga lied about everything - simply to weaken him by distracting and upsetting him, and to make him waste his strength on the vain anger. Freya could betray neither her country, nor her sister and Hagen himself. All Hyoga was saying were vicious lies, and Hagen was lured into his trap so easily, thanks to his own temper and stupidity. But now that would be over. Wasn't it him who swore by his life to be the trusted protector of Asgard? Hence it didn't matter, how painfully Hyoga's speeches reflected in his heart, Hagen had his duty to fulfill, and he would; one way or the other.

But he was too tired now - and Hyoga wasn't. Hagen saw him preparing for the next blow, thinking feverishly not how to counter-attack, but plainly how to defend himself...

He still had his fire.

All the time the battle continued, Hagen was persistently trying not to think about the fire. He had been sure all the time he wouldn't need this side of his power in the battle with so young an opponent - and not just now; maybe never again. The reluctance still held on him now; Hagen forbid himself strictly to think about using it, even when he saw how Hyoga completed his strange power summoning dance, and Hagen saw the wall of ice needles advancing him. Bear Thorstein, Hjolgi, Siggeir...Signy ('oh Signy, what to do now, please tell me') - all these ghosts of his past, one by one, marched in front of his inner view...and then Hilda. Siegfried. Freya. All alive, all in danger.


The familiar feeling flooded Hagen, warming and refreshing again. Hyoga stood and blinked confusedly, watching how his ice attack melted under the greedy pressure of the fire.

The view pleased Hagen a lot. He felt on the top - so high it made his head slightly, yet pleasantly dizzy. His vision was restored to its usual keenness. Hagen looked around, admiring his ability to see so clearly, and with some amusement he noticed his fire cave right behind him.

'I wonder how I managed to miss it before?', he thought. Hyoga still stood where he was, dazed, refusing to believe his attack failed so easily. Hagen laughed. For a long time he hasn't been feeling so happy.

"Surprised?" he shouted at Hyoga. "Well, I want you to know this is only the beginning. You want my jewel, little thief? Then come and get it!" Hagen turned and ran into the cave, his sensitive hearing caught the chasing steps.

Hagen felt how glad the cave was to see him, and that added to his own light-headed joy. He was at home, and there he would meet Cygnus Hyoga with all the royalties. And would entertain him, like it was required from the hospitable master. He laughed again, and stood in quiet waiting.

Like Hagen expected, Hyoga was not used to cave's atmosphere and was doing poorly. Hagen chased him around the cave with his fire attacks, using very little of the power he could really summon, like playing.

But was that really the game? Because every time Hyoga fell down, something stopped Hagen from the final blow. Some part of his mind was getting impatient with that situation, reflecting the wish of the surrounding fire - to burn the fallen warrior into ashes. But another tiny part of him still was resisting and struggling against the execution.

Once Hagen asked Hyoga to surrender, promising to spare his life if Hyoga swore loyalty to Hilda - and he was sincerely hoping that Hyoga would agree, despite of the shame he had put on Hagen and his family. Another time he let himself to be involved into the conversation about rights and wrongs in the world, according to the point of view of both warriors. Hyoga's words, desperate and hot, seemed so frank that Hagen nearly believed, only the words 'Give me your sapphire! Now!' brought him back to the ugly reality.

And the battle continued, but that was not a battle between Hagen and Hyoga anymore. It was the cruel and tiring encounter between Hagen's human and fiery side, with interchanging victories. Depending on who was winning, the Cygnus warrior was either tossed about like a loose autumn leaf, caught by the storm, or was left to rest and recover on the ground. But those victories drained Hagen much more than the battle itself.

Finally Hyoga gave up, letting his last, extremely dangerous blow, which clearly pointed at the soul in agony; he fell down, and just laid there, showing no sign of life.

Unsteadily, Hagen approached the limp body of the fallen enemy. He felt tired and sad, and at the same time he wanted to scream out his victory, loudly and madly. The Cygnus warrior laid on the very edge of the lava pool, and small flames tried to reach him in repetitive yet vain motions.

Want him! Give him to me!

The sudden urge made Hagen lift the body - he never suspected that there was still so much power left in him after that battle - Hagen held the body high above his head, in a comfortable position to throw it down, into the fire

Yes! Yes! Give him to me!

The fire jumped higher, in greedy, savage anticipation - and Hagen felt the same somewhere deep inside, while that tiny part of his soul were shrieking in horror...

"Hagen, no! Let him down, please!"

Slowly, like in a dream, Hagen turned around. It was probably a dream anyway, because how could Freya appear here in reality? Nevertheless, there she was, Freya, who stood at the entrance, looking at him in awe.

"Put him down!" No reaction followed from Hagen, thus she added, "This is an order."

The words awoke Hagen from his half-dream. An order... The Freya of his dreams never ordered anyone. Hence that was the bloody reality - with the war and the two sisters going against each other. Policy matters. Orders.

He dropped the body down. Freya rushed forward, went to her knees - next to the fallen Cygnus warrior.

"Hyoga, are you alright?"

Hagen's world shattered into thousands of loose pieces.

Freya started to say something, obviously addressing him. He didn't hear. Encouraged by Hagen's serious look and silence and failing to notice the emptiness of his eyes, Hyoga rose and began to talk, too. The silent but unstoppable rise of the fire behind Hagen somehow stayed unnoticed, either - until it was impossible to avoid it.

"Cygnus Saint - never in my entire life I hated anyone like I hate you."

...when the red glowing mist dissolved, slowly, off Hagen's eyes and mind, the Cygnus Warrior was struggling to stand up. And Freya lay on the ground, silent, pale, unmoving.

"I fulfilled my duty," he heard the words spoken. His own, maybe? It didn't matter. Hagen stood and looked at Freya's body, unable to turn his eyes away.

Hyoga now was addressing him, in furious, breaking voice, then launched an attack. Hagen put his defense automatically, letting the fire free - and it didn't fail, holding the icy blow without much effort.

Freya was dead. Killed by his own hand. The same one, who swore to protect her no matter what happened, murdered her in the minute of the blindness, which was caused by stupid, unreasonable anger. She was no traitor, just a weak, impressive and easily deceived girl, who made only one mistake in her life and was cruelly punished by someone she trusted to the end.

What would he say to Hilda and Siegfried, when they asked him? - an awkward thought crossed his mind.

How can you be sure they didn't betray you too, my love? You trusted Freya endlessly, and look what happened. What if the Cygnus warrior was right, after all?

- the words arranged in Hagen's mind. He recognized the speaker without any surprise.

People are not to be trusted, my lovely Hagen. They are traitorous by their nature, and every minute are ready to give you away. Like Freya did. You shall not trust any human being, my love. They can betray. I can't. Never.

- words were catching and tempting him. She is right, Hagen thought. People cannot be trusted...take me, for example. I betrayed and ruined everything I had - myself, including. I have no right to live.

You have a right to live forever, my love.

"Will you justify me?"

No answer came.

"Will you...forgive me?"

And that was the right question, and the fire replied.

"Yes, my love. I will forgive you, for my love to you is eternal and never ending, it can never ignite. I painful it was for me to wait - for me, who I always take what I want immediately. But it was worthy to wait, my fiery Hagen - because I knew, that one time you would choose me by your own will. You will make me stronger. Do you want to join me then, my love?

"I am yours. Take me."

The piercing ice needles reached and hit an already lifeless body.

Now, Freya, cry. Cry until you can take it no more. Get used to the path of tears, because this is your life from now. This serves you right for trying to steal my love away from me - and from now, you won't find the peace, no matter how you try. I won't let you cry your pain out. From every fireplace, I will whisper to you in his voice, my dancing flames will cast his shadow everywhere you will turn - to remind you that he is eternally lost for you. Cry, Freya. Cry over your future.

And you, little warrior of ice, you are doomed already, and I can neither interfere nor add to that. Your destiny is not under my control, I cannot condemn you to the misery that you deserve. All I can do is to burn this death deep in your mind - and what I burn there, stays with you forever.

And may your life be long.

The End

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