Annie-Lynn stared at the neatly-wrapped bundle of pound cake, turned it reverently in her hands, and mulled hard.
She couldn't remember telling anyone about her birthday. Hell, the little dwarf wasn't all that unusual in regards to harboring a general tight-lipped attitude towards her sordid life in Dust Town. Toting around a nubby, snarled tumbleweed of baggage like that did no self-respecting woman any good – regardless of race or birthright. Far as Ferelden's current leading darkspawn-basher was concerned, gagging down that rancid mouthful of monster brine had been toasting to a brand new Annie; this shiny, unheeled and outspoken surfacer nut with one smarting kick and nothing left in Orzammar apart from her beloved Big Sissy. The less of that existence she hulked along into the Gray Wardens, the better. 'It's like ol' Ma always said: if you can't say somethin' nice…'
Duncan had promised his freshest recruit that all previous transgressions would be forgotten in their distinguished troupe, which focused solely on the more important Here-and-Now. It was a sentiment Annie greatly appreciated – she would've told their stately commander exactly how much so, had the dwarf not been too busy stuffing her mouth with fistfuls of wild raspberries whilst on the prairie road to Ostagar. He'd been the one to point a scraggly patch of them out, actually – dually instructing his conscriptee on wildlife survival and providing her a new wonder to stutter over. Snow had begun to wear welcome thin as it melted from the spine-rifled Frostbacks into these fir-stubbled yellow fields.
"This place is great – it's soddin' great!" she had chattered to him, exited voice crackling in a high-pitched and uncharacteristic manner, its owner flickering close to 'utterly overwhelmed.' Seeds stuck antlike to her teeth, lips smacking around the fuzzy scarlet skin. "Slap my knobby knees n' call me a troll-whore. You can just pick stuff up off the bleedin' ground and eat it," the girl explained needlessly (gushed, really) to her newfound master with incisors stained red. Any regrets she might've once felt at leaving Orzammar had near dematerialized completely in the face of unearthed marvels. "Just like that! S' flamin' incredible, s' what it is. You don't even know." Duncan – patient and good-natured old soul that he was – tuned out most of this deluge and bid her only wait for summertime, when fruit orchards would be in bloom.
The young Warden had earned a raging acid belly-ache when they finally reached camp that evening, but nothing in her dirt-encrusted life thus far had been quite so worth one night of restless sleep.
Ironic – she sniffed the parcel of cake left sitting prettily upon her lumpy travel bedspread and detected sweet, pungent raspberry. No, Annie-Lynn had definitely not told anyone about her rotten, gift-less, and all-around unmemorable Dust Town birthdays.
'Damn thing's probably poisoned,' the girl thought, nose wrinkling fiercely when it considered what a grievous offense that spoiling such a fine-looking confection was. Her unbound length of coarse sable hair bristled both shoulder-blades. 'Still, if you gotta' go…'
Annie carefully tugged out the yarn bowtie, unwrapped one corner of blush-pink wax paper, and broke off a sizeable piece. Dried fruit bits and freckles of chocolate winked harmlessly back up at her from the yellow sponge divan. It crumbled between two fingers; dense, tightly-packed – not quite fresh from the oven – but finely-ground like limestone. The cake was absent of frosting, but its doubled layers were mortared sloppily together with a rosy paste that looked like flavored whipped cream. If the question in mind throughout this entire process was indeed "to taste or not to taste?"… well,Brosca was already checked, processed and sold.
She swiped a thumb through the glossy core and sucked it clean. When this precursory test didn't instantly throw Annie-Lynn onto a patch of pebble-scaled grass, retching up her bloody insides, the rogue figured another trial might be safe. Necessary, even! This time, she was going to pluck out one of those beady semi-sweet flakes…
"Pardon me down there," a motherly voice interrupted, its words tinted with the constant pigment of smile. "Would you like some tea, Annie?"
Wynne. Brosca shoved the icinged prize beneath her ratty coverlet, twisting around to fix their silver-haired mage with an innocuous smile.
It wasn't as though Annie-Lynn didn't like sharing. She certainly thought this little civil gesture was a marvelous invention whenever Leske came trolling back from the merchant quarter marketplace, munching on a paper conefull of stolen salted cashews. Dust Town had simply instilled a strange, primitive urge to horde in the piceous-eyed girl. Knives, stray gem shards, miscellaneous tack, snacks preserved for hard patches – they could all be found en masse by simply upturning Brosca's pack, rooting through its myriad hidden nooks. Hell, she'd been running around the Korcari Wilds those first fledgling days aboveground with a small apothecary jangling uncomfortably in her knapsack. A combination of prolific benefactors, fertile land and generous friends had abated the compellation somewhat… but upon occasion, Annie still felt that feral, indomitable push to survive; to undercut, steal, and store as necessary to secure her prolonged existence.
It was embarrassing, sure. Still, young Brosca didn't grow weepy-eyed over any realized social shortcomings. Lord High King God's-Grace-Upon-Earth Maric's own gold-laden blood proved no better, beside – for Sunshine got the same way whenever his paws locked around an ocher brick of cheese. Annie-Lynn remembered pestering him for a full hour by the bonfire one night, trying to sweetly cozen a sample from her senior Warden. "I am unmoved," he had announced, directing a great righteous snob at the girl before giving her a back fortified like a stone wall. When plump lips and watery dwarven eyes failed their creamery conquest, however, Annie just harrumphed before bringing up the 'Morrigan undertrews' incident again.
Blondie (blackmailed more so than persuaded) managed to part with the tiniest, most insignificant little shaving of cheddar. He was deeply offended when Annie about collapsed into a gagging fit, then proceeded to announce across all east Ferelden that her solitary bitter mouthful tasted like a certain something Alistair felt was unmentionable even in the rankest of drinking matches.
Oh, well. Sunshine could have all the god-awful cheese he wanted, according to junior Warden Brosca. Just goes to figure this dog nation's infinitely wealthy bastard heir would have a burnt-out set of taste-buds.
"Sure, why not?" the girl chirped in response to Wynne's offer. This pleased the wiry mage, and so she sat – easing onto Annie's pallet slowly, so as not to overtax arthritic limbs. Brosca thoughtfully watched her indubitably creaky joints tuck themselves neatly together; observed how firelight interplayed against white locks, their texture of straw and color like finely-spun spider's silk. A small, portable tin cup was piping in one elegantly dappled hand.
Duncan had once tried to push some ghastly green beverage off on Annie – when she'd woken swathed a military cot after her Joining, melting in damp puddles of sweat. He'd claimed this foul-smelling concoction was "tea," as well. Brosca indulged one ladylike sniff of that steaming mug and declared she'd rather take another quaff off their tainted chalice. (No cocktail should taste like a sodding vegetable, after all.) Fortunately, Wynne's gift seemed leagues more pleasant; it was pale peach in color, milk-thin, with a cinnamonlike rime gathering at edges. The dwarf spotted undissolved sugar granules bobbing along a placid surface, as well.
In the usual brusque duster manner, Annie accepted their resident sorceress's goblet and – with one bold tilt of the chin – poured perfumed brew down her gullet. She frowned, thought on it a moment, and popped her lips.
"Well? I'm interested to hear your opinion," Wynne said, beholding Brosca curiously. The girl always had one to share, negative or positive.
"Oh, s' all right, I s'pose," was Annie-Lynn's ultimate decision. "Better'n anything the Wardens tried spooning me – that's damn sure." A pause. "Not that it's much sayin'… what with the whole blood-drinking thing they got going on. What is it?"
"It is a lightly sweetened tea made from ginger and cardamom." The woman handed her cherry-cheeked friend a thin cloth packet of herbs, removed from some discreet fold of lavender Circle robes. "I ground and mixed the ingredients myself… but apart from Sten, I'm afraid no one seems to much care for it. Ah, well." Wynne observed happily as Annie took another sip, fingering the strongly-smelling pouch. "It is my firm belief that one should always have access to a little tea on the road, don't you think so? There's not much better for soothing away those cold Ferelden nights."
"Yeah, though you can't really call tonight cold," the Warden noted, free hand riffling up grass blades that greened beneath her palm. "But I imagine we'll be back scrapin' out sleeping holes in the mountains soon enough, what with all these bleedin' politics."
The mage nodded. "Indeed," she sighed, taking a moment to enjoy the cicada symphonies of impending warm seasons. Wynne's sharp intellectual's profile caught moonlight at supple, waxing angles that softened her years like a well-loved whetstone to blade-ridge. Annie thought this wistful, ever-prudent instructor must've been a genuine looker, once. "At least you've got a bit of novelty attached to all this weather. Give it a few decades, my dear… you'll be groaning along with the rest of us every time a storm cloud rolls overhead."
"Or chomping on axes in the Deep Roads, more like," the dwarf snarked, unwitting as to how disheartening her (mostly) harmless snips could be. The youngest Brosca's humor was no fleet, slicing rapier – it was more like a seventy-pound ogre's bludgeon. Still, she had to snicker at the image of blood-sodden, spent Gray Warden elders pausing for a brief tea and crumpet intermission with Orzammar's infamous Dead Legion.
Wynne seemed to disregard the cynical comment – or gaze past it, tension erased by the easygoing half-smile lingering wearily upon her grooved lips. This woman had once been intense, severe and alarmingly bright – still counted among the last category – but now, peace exuded from her bones even with Blight looming overhead. She was a sinewy cedar tree, aged to a comfortable twilight where contributing shade and safe haven for wayward sparrows were among her utmost concerns. Annie-Lynn felt bizarre disquiet sitting beside the wrinkled sorceress, then – stubbing a toe over the knowledge she would never reach that unruffled decade where life gilt itself in simple grandeur.
They were alone at their camp's slumbering center, the inky northness of Ferelden's mist-dampened nightfall unobstructed. It was punctuated only by the crackling fire and Mutt's low faux-growls as Alistair annoyed him with a pile of sticks and repeated lame demands to "fetch!" that went ignored. Crickets milled loudly in the flaking red wood of highland trees, buzzing into pinecones. Annie thought she could smell a weighty rain shower past the primordial mask of fresh mud – but it was still several miles off, lingering decisively west. They'd probably be slogging along knee-deep in belching mire come morning, droplets plunking loudly off armor plates. Such was the source of much complaint and national pride.
Warden Brosca tugged a stray dagger out of its nearby resting mound, and began to scrape hanks of dried dirt from the tracks of her shoes. Another sip of thickening chestnut tea accompanied the idle task nicely.
"When I was girl," Wynne continued, musing fondly into the snapping firewood, "my Chantry mentor and I used to cook up the Circle alchemy reserves every winter making experimental teas. Cardamom was always my favorite, though. It got very drafty stuck up in that old tower. Days would pass where I'd drink it by the potfull."
Annie-Lynn smiled around a swig. They tiptoed on the cusp of spring, now – icicles dripping off the gnarled oaks and frost thawing from these marshlands – but it oft did wonders for morale to look forward a bit. "Maybe you c'n make me some next snowfall," the rogue suggested, giving her cup an approving slosh.
"Maybe just that." Wynne smiled at her – far-off, gentle, but somehow pointedly sly. "You should really try some with your cake, you know."
Brosca's perpetually flushed cheekbones singed a measurable shade darker. She fumbled under her disturbed twist of blanket to retrieve it, fingers busy tearing a chunk away for the graying sorceress. Annie was kindly waved off before completing this peace offer, however; left cradling a fragile handful of sweetbread and Wynne's self-satisfied laugher. The high notes sprinkled her lightly, teasing – like latent arrowheads tingling off a storage crate and onto castle flagstone. "Rest easy, my dear," the woman said, laying a pardoning hand on their little leader's wiry shoulder. "I'm quite glad you're enjoying it so much. One can only stomach so much of Leliana's mushroom stew."
The brass-knuckled duster momentarily looked like she might cry. Instead, Warden Brosca gummed down her amazement by staring into the mug, disrupting swirls of cream. "So you made this… for me?" Annie-Lynn was barely able to ask it without launching herself into a thespian-worthy scene.
Wynne's boughs tittered with chuckles. "No, dear! I'm not that much of a saint. I simply saw it sitting in a baker's window when we last passed through Redcliffe, and thought you might like something special. Among all that dreadful preparation business about the Landsmeet, however, I confess I didn't have the opportunity to give it to you. Slipped my mind, perhaps. You'll have to forgive the senilities an old woman. I do think it's still edible, fortunately. Ferelden desserts are more durable than most."
"Last week. It was my birthday," Annie mumbled, tongue swelling resolutely in between her teeth. No one had ever gotten the girl a real present – certainly not Ma,' who was lucky enough to feed both daughters on a regular basis. Absent of any real income, a guilt-ridden Rica usually tried to gift her decidedly roughened-looking sister with luxurious hand-me-downs from would-be suitors, bidding she put these various pieces of glamour to better use. They were indeed beautiful; shimmering, lacquered pearls or etched bangles of gold. But blood money was blood money. Normally the concept wouldn't have bothered young Brosca, churlish knee-cracker of Beraht's truculent carta – had it been any blood but Sissy's. Hell if she'd rip whore profits off her own sibling's pimp. Hence, Kalah's youngest had gone much unaffected by the milestone of years; skipping along on stolen merchandise and glistering nothings swiped from lowbrow merchant nobility.
Wynne's splinter eyebrows ascended in surprise. "Oh," she pleasantly remarked. "Well! Happy birthday, then, my Gray Warden."
Annie-Lynn could think of nothing meaningful to say – but hugged the mage so viciously, she might've snapped ribs.