Her lips were at my throat.
"Hespith," murmured the Paragon.
I closed my eyes. "Your husband—"
"Is a drunken sot who doesn't give a nug's fart about what I do on my own time." Her voice was rough, shattered by the fire and smoke of the forge. "Quiet now, my Hespith."
What the Paragon wanted, the Paragon got. Including me.
Those were the good days, the dream-days, the before. My throat is parched now, my skin aflame. I am a pyre, a forge-flame, and every part of me is being consumed.
There were four of us: Me. My lover the Paragon. Her husband the warrior.
And her obsession.
Branka slammed her fist into the table, and the inkwell jumped. "You forget who leads this house!"
I bristled. "And you've forgotten that I'm your captain. Branka…" I pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and forefinger, willing my pounding heart to calm. "Even if we make it to Ortan Thaig, there's no guarantee that we'll find the Anvil. People don't come back from that thaig."
"That's because they weren't prepared." Her stone-grey eyes were narrowed. "We will be. It's down there somewhere, Hespith. I can feel it."
My stomach twisted on itself. "It might be, but—it was lost for a reason."
"You can't know that. And if I were to finally rediscover the secret of the golems…can you imagine! We could take back the old thaigs." She put her hands on the table, leaned forward. "We could reclaim the Deep Roads. We could take back Kal'Hirol."
Branka and I stared at each other, and I could feel the weight of her will on my shoulders. I should fight. This is madness, and foolishness.
She was my Paragon, and the leader of my house. And I loved her, never more than when she was in this mood, her stubborn, reckless brilliance on such intense display.
It was madness, but it was headier than ale, and giving in sweeter than the song of the Stone.
"Fine," I said, and my voice was quiet and filled with steel. "I will prepare the house."
"We leave in three days." She turned away from me. If she had been anyone else, if we had been anyone else, I would have gone to her, brushed my hands over her shoulders, wound my hilt-callused fingers in her hair.
As it was—
The door slammed open. "Branka! You sodding nug-licker! What's this about taking the house and going to the Deep Roads?"
Oghren always did have a terrible sense of timing.
He ignored me as he marched up to Branka, still shouting. She rounded on him, shouting back. They'd do this for a while, get into a fistfight, and then probably get naked on the war-room table, on top of the maps.
By the Stone, I hated that man.
When she told me that she was leaving him behind, sporting a shiner that narrowed her left eye to a slit, my heart beat hard with a vicious pleasure.
I thought I'd won.
Branka sat on a stone, her eyes scanning the darkness beyond the glow of the lyrium veins and the flicker of our campfire. Ortan Thaig loomed around us, stinking of spiders and burned silk.
I went to her, dropped to a crouch. "Our next move?"
A vague smile played on her lips. "The Anvil is somewhere beyond the Dead Trenches. We have a bearing, at least. We'll go down deep."
"Through how many darkspawn?"
For the first time that night, she looked at me. Her gaze was calm, evaluative, taking everything and giving nothing back. I felt my mouth harden. "Are you giving up on me, Hespith?" she asked in a voice nearly swallowed by the shadows. "I'm going forward, with or without you."
It was never a question. "I'm at your side until the end. You know that."
I am yours.
"Then we'll do what we need to. There was a fragment in the records, part of a route, I think. Right through a tezpadam lair, but I'd rather the stalkers than the darkspawn." She hawked and spat into the dust. "We can at least eat the tezpadam."
We'd lost forty of three hundred people, fighting through the spiders that held Ortan Thaig.
We would lose more on the way to the Dead Trenches.
How can I explain it? The stone gives no answer, and my blood is burning, my sight failing. How can I explain what the deep does to a mind already cracked with obsession? I loved her, dream-friend. I loved her, and I failed her.
I couldn't stop it, didn't even try. Her obsession became mine, for a time. I saw at last what she had done to Oghren, and knew that if I tried to stand in her way, she would leave me behind just like him.
Branka heard the song of the Anvil of the Void. She belonged to it. Never to me.
Never to me, dream-friend.
"Sing me a song, my Hespith."
Her fingers trailed across the back of my neck. The tips were hard from the hammer, and I welcomed the small scratching pain. "What kind of song?"
"Hm. A song of the deeps, I think."
We rested in a small room in the Dead Trenches. A mural carved into one wall depicted some city, somewhere; not Orzammar, perhaps Kal Sharok or Gundaar. There were only fifty of us left, but we were close to the Anvil. We would make it.
But the closer we came, the farther Branka retreated from us. I reached out for her, but she would slide through my hands and leave me holding nothing but darkness and dust. There will be trials, she would say. Caridin was brilliant. He wouldn't want his Anvil to be inherited by anyone who wasn't worthy of his work.
Avid, she drove us forward through the stone, through the darkspawn and tezpadam and all the other creatures that lived in the deep. We crossed a river of fire, the heat scorching the bottoms of our feet even through our boots. We were now treading in places where only the Legions of the Dead would go.
I wondered, sometimes, if they weren't busy building tombs for us in Orzammar.
But now, Branka had drawn me to her. We were sitting on the steps leading to a cairn, pressed into each other. "I'm not sure I know any songs of the deep," I said. Not any that are worth the singing.
She cocked an eyebrow at me. "Not a one? Not a song of the Deep Roads or of the lost thaigs?"
"Well, there's one—" It was maudlin and silly and properly sung after five or six mugs of the worst ale in the bar. But I knew it like my own breath. My mother used to sing it to me, after my father died. A lullaby, of sorts.
She nodded, and I took a breath.
You know that I must leave you
My sweet, I have to go
I'm leaving for the Deep Roads
That sleep beneath the Stone.
I've shined up my father's shield
I've polished armor till it shone,
I've sharpened my sturdy war-axe
To go into the Stone.
Don't cry my love, for though I go
I promise to return home
To my thaig, to you, to our two babes
Blessed by the Stone.
For all of us must venture
to confront the dangers we do know
We keep the faith, and our people safe,
Sheltered by the Stone.
You know that I must leave you,
And if I never return home,
Know that I gave my life for what I love
And I sleep within the Stone.
"Good," she said, and that one word warmed me. "A song of the sacrifice. Appropriate." She let her lips press against my dusty hair. Outside this chamber, I imagined I could hear the wet sound of the fleshy things that grew along the walls stirring. We had seen horrors down here that I had once considered only fever-rumors spoken by warriors who had come back to Orzammar taint-sick and dying. I'd done my turn in the Deep Roads, but the truly horrible things lurked just beyond the patrolled places.
Near to us, Laryn the tailor curled in a blanket, her head on her husband's hip. Beyond them, the rest of us slept or spoke in low voices. None looked at Branka, or at me.
We were too deep to make it back safely. It was forward, or nothing.
It was at that moment, Branka holding on to me and nothing but dust in my heart and my voice, that I started to believe that there might be something far worse than death waiting for us down here.
But the Anvil shone just out of reach. I could feel it. Next to me, Branka's body was thrumming with tension. She was our keystone, the piece that held us all together. Without her, we would fall.
And she was cracking.
We reached the first test , and we died.
"Again," Branka croaked. She glared into the large room just beyond us. The statue within it had just killed all ten of the warriors who had gone in to try to deal with it. I could see Garit's head dashed open against one of the anvils at the edges of the circle. Grey mixed with red, surreal in the flickering blue light. "I think the anvils are the key. Again."
We stared at her. Behind me, I could hear the creak of someone shifting uneasily in their armor. Branka spared not a glance for her house, what stragglers were left of it. She studied the terrible faces of the statue in the center of the room. Stone mouths gaped, sightless eyes stared. "Caridin, you bastard. I know you, I've studied you. And I will beat you."
She meant to throw us all against this trap. And if we won through, the next trap. And the next.
She was our Paragon, the leader of our house. And if we were to have a chance to survive, we were going to have to do the unthinkable.
I stepped back, away from her. And in that moment, I betrayed her.
"Run," I hissed.
Branka's screaming followed us all the way out to the Dead Trenches.
I do not know what I expected then. She was crumbling already, what little of her that was not composed of obsession and grim determination ground into powder. Should we have stayed? Should I have stood by her side, held her hand, spoken sweet words into her ear, sung to her while she slept? Should I have charged forth at the last, and died with her name on my lips?
Her name is on my tongue now, and it burns like the flame within the Stone.
The poison in my veins, I name it betrayal.
The darkspawn caught us.
We were careful, so careful, but still they found us. We were too few, and unprepared, and though I killed and killed and their black blood drenched me, we simply did not have enough warriors. I went down beneath a wave of corrupted flesh, and waited for the Stone to take me.
Instead, I woke.
"Sssh," a voice said. I recognized it; Laryn the tailor, a woman I knew passing well. "Ssh, Hespith. Don't let them know you're awake."
I cracked an eye open. There was movement beyond the touchlight, a gurgling laugh. We were surrounded by ruddy lumps of flesh connected by things that looked like ropy, vein-wrapped tendon. "Why are we still alive?" I asked, keeping my voice low.
Laryn was crouched next to me. "I don't know." Her voice shook, tears threatening. She was gentle, was Laryn, and she had survived this long because she was good at finding a dark place to hide during battles. "They ate some of the men. They kept all of the women."
The red patches on the floor pulsed. I could see it move, see the slick surface ooze a clear liquid. I swallowed bile. "Have everyone gather together. We are going to need weapons."
"They took them all." Laryn touched my hair, and rose. I saw one of the hurlocks—an emissary—gesture at her, and rumble to its fellow.
I wish Branka were here.
If we'd stayed, the worst that would have happened was death. If Branka were here, she would already be coming up with a plan to get us out, to collapse the roof, to poison the flesh that shivered and shuddered on the floor and walls.
Think, Hespith! Think! There must be something—
I heard a scream, and my eyes snapped open. Two of the darkspawn had Laryn, and though she was shrieking and kicking, they were dragging her away without even slowing.
I closed my eyes.
Betrayal, dream-friend. First Branka betrayed us. Then we betrayed her.
And at the last, I betrayed those I led.
I can see you still. I see your shudder when you hear my voice, when I whisper my little song into your ear. Do I dream the tall human with you, or that you have somehow brought Oghren with you? You should not have brought him. He was left behind for a reason.
Go to her, my friend. Go to her, and do what you must.
For she led the darkspawn to us. Fed us to the darkness, turned us, tainted us. She needed us, to throw at her traps. She needed what we became.
Are you here, or are you gone? Laryn is still screaming, the stone giving me back her voice. There is another voice. A sweet, sweet song, rising above the screams, the grunts, the restless movement of the child-flesh within me.
Branka's lips are at my throat. Hespith. My Hespith.
Quiet now, my Hespith.
I walk into the darkness, and the Stone closes behind me.
Author's Note: This was written for the Sian_Shoe/Aimo dwarven competition, and won runner-up. I always wondered about the relationship between Branka and Hespith, and so when I saw "do something about dwarves"...well, this was where my brain went.