Rolan was uncertain about many things, and although he had far more pressing concerns than his own state of certainty – or lack thereof – he could not help but come back to it, again and again.

He couldn't recall being this disconcerted by the human world before. Certainly, he had always found humans baffling to some extent. The day he sprang into being, an Avatar created by King Valdemar's prayers and spellcasting, he was so sure in his purpose. She, then, of course, and again someday, if his current existence as Rolan was ended as it had been so many times in the past.

Rolan was now hundreds of years old. Barely an infant on the scale of the gods, but incomprehensibly ancient to the eyes of men, and he still didn't understand what was motivating these hells-bedamned nobles and their plots against Talamir, then Talia. What did they have planned for Elspeth that could conflict with her being Chosen and confirmed as Heir-in-Waiting?

Talia's weight shifted on his back and he felt a frisson of anxiety flutter through him. She was dreaming, now. A handsome man with black hair stood by her, reaching for a poker in the fire. Rolan tightened the external shields he held around her mind, enough interwoven layers to blur her backlash dreams even to him, although they were too tightly bound, now, for him to press them away entirely.

His Mindspeech was stretched nearly to its limits, even supplemented with Talia's meager – although growing – ability and bolstered with node-energy and leylines that they crossed. Constantly sweeping the countryside in search of unfriendly minds in their path was taking its toll. He felt frustrated that he could not reach to Haven – was traveling away from Haven, in fact – but he could only reach another Groveborn from this distance, and there were none in Haven at the moment. Felara and her Chosen, Ylsa, were far to the South, nearly at the Karsite border. Tantris, with his Kris, felt as though he were in central Valdemar, probably at Wyvern Reach, seat of the Orthallen family. Kyldara was...

Rolan lost his train of thought as he nearly stumbled, a back hood caught in the crust over the snow, and he automatically drew on a nearby leyline to stabilize his plunging energy reserves. Ahrodie drew up short behind him, Dirk on her back, arms wrapped around his chest where Kalene was sheltered under his waterproofed greatcloak.

Their trail was plainly visible. A warm wind had swept through the valley in the night, and here on these south-facing snowfields where the snow melted and refroze it was pointless to waste energy in a futile attempt to cover their tracks. Their only hope was to scan for Guardsmen and to move as quickly as possible.

Rolan was more deeply exhausted than he'd been since his headlong dash to Choose Talia. Then, he pressed past his fatigue, his Foresight an ominous thrum that urged him to arrive as quickly as possible, lest there be no future Queen's Own to Choose at the end of his journey. He had taken care not to let Talia know what danger she was in: she was a fragile little thing, for all her outward strength. She spoke about them so rarely – clearly the distance hurt her, for all that she had to leave to avoid her society's social pressure to re-marry. What would it do to her to know that her own people would have harmed her?

Talia shifted on his back again as he regained his balance and continued breaking their path through the snow. Dirk distracted him – so absorbed in his guilt and fear that he was constantly broadcasting the emotions, despite Ahrodie's shields over the Herald's own. Rolan was certain enough that there were no unfriendly minds in their vicinity that he paused in his wide sweeps, focused on the child in Dirk's arms for a moment. Kalene's mind was steady. Her heart still beat more slowly than normal for a babe, but her breath steamed with reassuring regularity.

She would awaken, he was certain of it. He sent this to Ahrodie, hoping that his confidence would shake Dirk out of his self-imposed misery. Rolan knew the boy was lifebonded to Talia, even if the two seemed unaware of it as of yet, but this seemed...excessive. Then again, Rolan had always known he had to keep a certain level of detachment from his Chosen to survive the centuries of love and loss that was his lot as a Companion. He had been a Herald, too, once. He shied away from the memory. To live, knowing only the life one had been born into, without the practiced detachment of centuries of memories to fall back on...the flood of memories upon arriving back at the Havens had shaken him to his core. Rolan hadn't chosen to come back as a Herald again.

He cast about for something, anything to distract himself from those painful, old memories. They were only a day away from Bayberry and the Waystation Supply Outpost if they could keep up this rate. Rolan forced more energy into his numbing limbs and pressed on. Perhaps Felara or Tantris would come into his Mindspeech range soon. He hoped, cast a hope towards the Havens. Whatever had possessed these nobles to work against the Crown in this way? But he would succeed – the Companions would succeed. This is what they were made for in the first place, after all, and the inertia of centuries of planning bore them forwards. They would discover who was behind this plot and put it behind them. Elspeth would recover from Hulda's meddling and bring magic back to Valdemar. He was sure of it. And yet, those uncertainties lingered.

They moved slowly, but inexorably until past nightfall. Ahrodie's Animal Mindspeech was proving truly invaluable: she found an empty woodcutter's hut through the eyes of a rat living in the walls. Once they arrived, Dirk, moving stiffly, settled the still-sleeping Talia and Kalene inside, then untacked and rubbed the Companions down. This was no Waystation, designed to allow Companions to squeeze inside, but they had a bag of oats sufficient to give him and Ahrodie both a few, warm mouthfuls of mash and they broke through the snow enough to find some dried grass, still untouched from the summer.

Rolan huddled together with Ahrodie, both of them drawing on node-energy to keep themselves warm enough to rest. He felt the strain of relying on magic all day, and now they'd need it through the night to ensure they remained functional. Ahrodie shook next to him and he stepped nearer to her that she might lean on him and share his warmth. They would pay for this, he knew, once they could allow themselves time to recover. For now, though, there was no other option.

Dirk felt as though he was moving through quicksand, in thought and body. Kalene was still and limp in his arms, as she'd been for hours, since...he pushed the thought away before his fear and guilt could rise and overwhelm him. He checked Kalene's breathing again, then went to Talia. The willowbark tea they'd been carrying since the night before was heated just enough that tiny spirals of steam rose from the surface of one of his traveling tin mugs, and he carefully tipped the cup, pouring tiny amounts in Talia's mouth, watching to be sure she swallowed.

An hour of this and she arose, all at once, flinging herself out of the pallet he'd made up for her on the dirt floor.

"Stop! Get away from me!" she shouted, one hand held defensively in front of her face, the other tucked into her side. Dirk knelt on the floor, making himself as small and nonthreatening as possible before speaking. Talia's eyes were glazed over. She stared into the distance, unseeing.

"Tis I, Talia, Dirk. Tha's nothing to fear, here." He realized he'd drifted away from his painstakingly-trained Haven accent into the sounds of his childhood, but pushed all thought of that away in favor of focusing on her.

"Wake up, dearheart. Come back to us. It was just a dream," he soothed. Talia blinked rapidly, then turned her head and looked at him, the rictus of fear on her face softening into recognition, then flashing back to fear just as quickly.

"Where's Kalene? Is she awake?"

"Not yet, but her heartbeat is strong and she breathes well," Dirk admitted, extricating Kalene from the sling on his chest. He handed her to Talia, who looked her over with a furrow in her brow. He wondered if she could use her Gifts to check on Kalene yet, or if her backlash was still too severe.

"...eaten at all, today? Since this morning, I mean."

Dirk brought himself back to the room with some difficulty. He was so exhausted it was hard to track a conversation, even with just one other person.

"She hasn't," he said, and lapsed back into silence.

Talia stood, shakily, and moved back to the bedroll, holding Kalene tightly. She sat down and began fumbling with her clothes. Dirk realized she meant to try to feed the babe, despite Kalene's continuing sleep, and averted his eyes. He cast about for something to do or say, then realized Talia hadn't eaten, either, and set about rummaging through the saddlebags for something he could fix over the fire. The woodcutter's shack was utterly bare of comestibles – not even a sack of hardtack or jerky could be found.

Talia made a choking noise and he whirled around, only to feel himself flush from his forehead to his neck when he realized that Talia had stripped herself entirely to the waist. Kalene was at her breast, mostly covering her nakedness, and Talia herself was weeping, tears rolling down her face and dropping onto the child. She looked up.

"She's nursing," Talia managed, then put her face down and wept again.

Dirk's eyes welled up with tears. He dashed them away with the edge of his sleeve and found that he was smiling. "She's going to be all right?" he asked, hoarsely, and relayed the news to Ahrodie when Talia agreed that yes, this was a good sign, and it was likely that Kalene was truly sleeping now, free from the sleeping draught's influence, if she was able to suck and swallow milk.

Kalene woke while being fed, for a few minutes, and glared around the room as though she could enact revenge on whoever was responsible for her drugged state, then drifted back off into a true sleep. Talia and Dirk ate bread and cheese sitting to either side of the sleeping babe, watching her as though they could keep her safe as long as their eyes were on her.

"She's dreaming," Talia said in hushed tones, passing her free hand over Kalene's back.

"That's good, too, right?" Dirk asked, unable to let go of his anxiety just yet.

"Yes," Talia said, smiling. "I've been working with the Healers, as Gift practice, since no other Heralds or Trainees have Empathy right now, and all the Healers agree that a dreaming mind indicates a healthy sleep."

"That's good," Dirk said, feeling as though he had nothing useful to share, yet was obliged to hold up his end of the conversation. Talia looked up at him, a smile lurking around the edges of her lips, but her eyes were serious.

"Thank you for keeping us safe," she said, and he looked away, burning with shame.

"I didn't," he whispered. Talia made an inquiring noise.

"I didn't!" he repeated. "I gave her the draught. Ahrodie and Rolan couldn't. I should have trusted your shielding. They didn't see us, didn't hear us, didn't mention anything odd, but they swept the valley twice and were headed back again, I gave her the draught. She could have…" he let himself trail off, unable to voice the terrible thought that had plagued him all day.

"She could have died," Talia said softly. "But we could have died, too. While I was in trance, I wondered if I'd know if I died before I arrived at the Havens. All I could feel was bits of emotion from Rolan. He was terrified, at one point. If you, Ahrodie, and Rolan all agreed it was necessary, it probably was."

They sat in silence for a long moment, then Talia spoke again.

"Don't misunderstand me: I was so afraid when you told me she wouldn't wake that I thought I might die of it. And I'm furious that it was necessary, but it was." she touched his arm gently.

"Thank you for keeping us safe," she repeated. Dirk inhaled shakily.

"Thank you for keeping us safe," he said. "That backlash can't be pleasant, and you're on day two of it."

"That's true," Talia said and drank more willowbark tea. "I'll think of some way you can repay me for this hells-damned headache. Once it's gone." she yawned abruptly and swayed a little, eyes unfocusing. Dirk scooted off the pallet.

"You should get some sleep."

"Where's your bed?" Talia asked, looking around the dilapidated shack, then realization dawned in her eyes. "You are not sleeping on the saddles!" she patted her pallet then pointed at Dirk accusingly.

"Your bedroll is here, too! No, Dirk, take your damn bedroll. We both need to rest, and the saddle-blankets really aren't adequate."

Dirk helped her stand, separated their bedrolls, then eased her back onto the ground. He began to carry his bedding across the room, but she stopped him with a glare that caught his attention, despite her being only barely in his peripheral vision.

"Next to me, unless you don't want to share warmth and would rather wake up shivering in the dead of night."

"Woman, there's no pleasing you!" he said, secretly pleased despite himself. Hope thrummed in his chest that perhaps she would forgive him all the fear he'd caused her by dosing Kalene. Words were cheap and he knew her...knew her well enough to know that Kalene mattered to her more than anything else in the world. He tried to picture his reaction if someone gave one of his family members a near-lethal dose of medicine and deflated.

He'd be furious. She probably was, just hiding it until they were safely back in Haven. Talia was smart enough to know that their best chance of survival lay in close cooperation.

The hammer would fall when they returned to the Collegium, he was sure of it. But right now she was laughing at him, smiling with her lips and eyes both.

"I'll be happy if we both sleep well and warmly."

Dirk arranged his bedroll in silence and settled down next to her, tugged the blankets farther over her shoulder. She smiled at him again and closed her eyes, one finger held in Kalene's chubby fist. Her breathing smoothed out almost immediately, but he lay awake for hours, memorizing her features.

It might be his last opportunity to see her without scorn writ large on her features, though he hoped she spoke truly about understanding the necessity of the circumstances. When sleep found him, it was accompanied by nightmares. A handsome man, brown-haired with a cleft chin, clad in well-made, sturdy clothes held Kalene. He panicked at the sight of it, reaching for the baby.

"I told you to make her be silent." The man was smiling, but fairly radiated malice. Dirk reached for the babe, but it felt as though an invisible force held him back.

"Give her to me! She'll be quiet, I promise!" Dirk cried, but the man only smiled all the more darkly.

"She will be silent, like her namesake. Be as silent as the grave, Selia." The man dropped Kalene into a burlap sack and...

Dirk woke with a scream caught in his throat, then froze. Talia was awake, too. They were face-to-face, staring into each other's eyes. Hers reflected the same gut-wrenching terror the nightmare instilled in him, and she clutched his hand with the fervor of a drowning swimmer.

"I'm sorry," her voice was hardly more than a whisper. Dirk tried to answer, but his mouth was so dry he had to work his lips a moment before he could speak.

"La, I needed awakening," Dirk tried to inject some levity into his voice. "If anything, I should apologize to you for waking you so abruptly for naught but a simple dream. It's near to daybreak already, and a few leagues from the road, if it's safe to travel it."

"It wasn't. A dream, I mean. Or, it was, but it was a memory, too. Mine. I asked Rolan to shield me last night, but my own shields were so tattered it seems that it seems that his help wasn't enough to keep me from broadcasting. I didn't mean for you to see it. It may not be as disturbing as a chirra playing a harp, but…"

Dirk let go of her hand in astonishment. "That was yours?"

Talia's expression smoothed. The worried lines in her brow disappeared as though they'd never been. She looked placid, serene, even with smudges of dirt on her face and strands of horsehair dotting her clothing and blankets.

"It was," she said, in a manner that did not invite further conversation, but Dirk was too shaken from the dream and the revelation to check himself.

"Who was.."

"Alessin," Talia interrupted him, then pushed her blankets aside briskly and strode to the fireplace. Dirk rolled onto his back and stared blankly at the ceiling.

My husband is dead. No, he is unlamented.

Talia's words the day they met rang in his head. He'd assumed...he'd assumed. Not asked. It had never entered his mind that Talia's marriage was anything other than tepid. Unhappy, perhaps. Livable, but still better to be free of it. She didn't carry herself like a woman who'd been chained to a man such as that.

Unbidden, a thought entered Dirk's mind. She did carry herself like a woman who'd experienced those things because she had experienced them. She simply didn't fit his idea of someone who'd survived a violent spouse.

Dirk flipped onto his face and stifled a groan. Surely she'd resent him even more now, for invading her privacy. Reluctantly, he got up and began to pack the bedrolls away. Talia had Kalene tucked under her arm like a parcel, blowing gently on the coals and adding tinder when they glowed a dull red. The last of the bread and cheese from Duneagle was next to her, resting on their oilskin wrapping.

If they didn't make it to Bayberry that night, they'd sleep hungry. Dirk joined Talia by the hearth and accepted his portion from her, but tucked most of it into his pocket when she turned away a little to nurse Kalene.

Best keep some aside. Talia might need it later.

All through the long, cold day, Talia found it hard to stay focused. Her head pounded from days of using her Gifts through her backlash, and one night's sleep was hardly enough to recover.

Thankfully, it seemed that the Guardsmen had moved to the south, believing they were still making for Haven. By midday they had reached the road to Bayberry, and just in time, for there were huge, dark clouds rising over the horizon and they didn't come within range of another human mind for hours.

Rolan was uncommunicative, exuding exhaustion. Talia felt strangely drained as well, above and beyond what she'd felt from backlash in previous days. It was almost as though she was still using a Gift, pulling on her abilities through the raw Gift-channels in her soul. She settled into a half-trance, spinning additional shields around her mind. It hurt, a little, but the odd pulling-sensation abated for a time. Then Rolan and Ahrodie's speed surged, nearly bolting through the weak fog. Rolan felt relieved. She lifted her shielding a little and reached out to him with a questioning sending, wincing despite herself. A split-second after, she felt that odd gift-pulling once more, then,

:Lytha and Herald Tedric are just ahead!: he sent. :I have informed Lytha that we are being pursued and that the claims of impostors are baseless.: He fell silent again and the pulling sensation intensified. Talia was a-whirl, mind spinning. They were safe! But what were her Gifts doing, feeling as though she was using them while she was not – while she was so faint from backlash she could hardly manage a touch of Empathy – her strongest Gift!

Was Rolan using her Gifts, somehow? Nothing of the sort had ever been mentioned in her classes. She put the thought aside for a moment. The faint feeling of betrayal lingered, though she reminded herself that they had spent days fleeing near-certain death. Surely these were exceptional circumstances.

Could he have not explained this? I have been awake nigh-on a full day.

A glimmer of a white shape appeared ahead and Talia redoubled her shielding, secluding herself from Rolan's mind as far as she was able. Her backlash eased a little, with the action. She refocused. A Herald! And safety!

She glanced towards Dirk and was surprised to see that he appeared resolute, almost sad. Another oddity, and she had not the energy to puzzle out any of them.

They came upon Tedric and Kytha sheltered beneath a weeping willow. It had no leaves, of course, but its hanging tendrils were so thick it all-but obscured them.

"Herald Dirk, Trainee Talia!" Tedric hailed them. She could see, now, that Tedric was so bundled as to make any observations moot. Was he rotund, or was it layers of sheepskin coats? He had a woolly hat, flaps covering his ears and tied under his chin, a scarf wrapped under it hid his nose and mouth, but his eyes were cheery.

"We're glad to see you, Tedric," Dirk said, trotting a little ahead on Ahrodie who nosed at Kytha for a moment.

"Nasty business, this," Tedric said, shaking his head. "If it's a prank, it's not an acceptable one. Guardsmen set on Heralds! Who would think of it? But my dears, you must be frozen through. Kytha and I have been waiting here hardly a half-mark and I can barely feel my toes! Quickly, through here. We can reach the Supply Post in a few minutes without being seen if we take this path."

Indeed, only a few minutes later they rounded a small hill and the Supply Post could be seen through the fog, perhaps a furlong distant. She realized she had been dazed, when Tedric addressed her directly, shaking her into fuller wakefulness.

"...and your Rolan told my Kythara you may need some supplies for your child, Talia."

"Yes," she responded, "I am almost out of clean nappies and sweetgrass for her. I have been abandoning them along the way, since I had no way of cleaning them while we fled cross-country."

"Hm," he stroked his scarf-covered chin pensively. "I haven't any supplies such as that, but if you've enough for the night Kytha and I can go into Bayberry in the morn to buy some."

Talia felt herself slipping into a daze again, but she murmured a thank-you before she fell silent once more. When they stopped Dirk was at her side, helping her down before she'd noticed him moving.

"Are you well?" he asked in a low voice. She tried to nod, but her head was so heavy she felt it would pull her to the ground. The Waystation Supply was all-but a blur, but so warm she nearly wept from the pain of it as her face and fingers began prickling almost the moment they were inside. Dirk helped her upstairs and gently stripped her and Kalene of their thick outwear. A fire was already lit in the small room and Tedric was fussing over it, adding another log. She blinked. He had shed his wrapping already – how? Hadn't it been but a moment? - He was bald as an egg, all soft-looking thin skin as far as she could see, aside from the deep, red scars on his hands and neck. A cup of broth appeared out of somewhere and she drank obediently when it was held to her lips. Willowbark tea followed. She tried to bat it away, to sink into the warm darkness that beckoned, but the cup was insistent. She sipped the heavily honeyed tea then closed her eyes and, blessedly, slipped into sleep.