Nynaeve had intended for them to go back to her room, where they would have some privacy, but then Lan had asked when she'd eaten last, and when she couldn't give a clear answer, he'd insisted that they go to the Aes Sedai's dining hall. Small tables, meant to seat four, were scattered around the room, far enough apart that conversation wouldn't easily be overhead, although at present they nearly had the place to themselves. The floor, tiled in the colors of all seven Ajahs, was the most colorful thing Nynaeve had seen in days.
No sooner had they sat down than a servant in the liverie of the White Tower appeared, reciting what the kitchens had available in a quick, practiced rhythm.
Nynaeve ordered a vegetable stew with beef, and crusty bread, as close as she could get to ordinary Two Rivers fare. Lan asked for a noodle soup with coin peppers. They waited in silence until the food arrived. Nynaeve didn't want to say anything when a Tower servant would be back in earshot at any moment, and Lan was apparently waiting for her to speak first. And once they were served, there was no possibility of conversation for a while - Nynaeve hadn't fully realized how hungry she was until the stew was in front of her, and Lan was always single minded when he ate. Inevitably, though, the food was finished, or near enough, and Nynaeve still couldn't think of what exactly she wanted to say.
"What happened?" she asked, largely to break the silence.
"I was making tea. My eyes were off him for a minute, maybe two. By the time I turned around, he already looked sick. I don't know where he got the peach."
"I do," she said. "When we went out to the gardens, last night. He picked something off one of the trees lining the path. It was dark, and I didn't think anything of it. Light, this is my fault." She knew she would never stop seeing it now. Never stop hearing Stepin's casual 'not ripe yet' as he slipped the cursed thing into his pocket. It would have been so easy to stop him, then. So easy to-
Lan leaned forward, halving what little distance there was between them. "Hey. No. You saved his life."
"For now." She'd been careless, overconfident. The awareness of it made her furious, but she couldn't find anywhere to put her anger. This was her fault. Not Lan's not, the Aes Sedai's, certainly not Stepin's. Hers. If he hadn't cut…wait.
"How did he cut his arm?"
"Stepin. He had a cut on his arm. How did he get it?"
"Oh." Lan's expression remained as unreadable as ever, but the time he took to respond told her he was weighing his options, considering what, or how much, to say. Eventually he smiled, a little. "Got your attention, didn't it?"
Oh. "Did Stepin tell you?" It didn't seem likely, after how set he'd been on secrecy.
"Not intentionally." Lan picked up his wine cup, didn't drink, set it down again. "You're both going to have to be a lot more careful if you don't want the whole Tower to know what you did."
Nynaeve pulled her braid around front so she could touch it, suddenly conscious of the minute differences between the way Stepin had done her braids and the way she would have done them herself. No one would notice that, would they? Egwene might have, but she wasn't here. "How did you find out?"
"Moiraine did something to annoy you. He noticed. I noticed him noticing. When I asked if you were hurt, he answered without thinking."
"Are you going to tell Moiraine?"
Lan smiled. Sort of. "No."
Nynaeve was almost sure there was something else, behind that single word. Something Lan wasn't saying, but hoped she would hear all the same. But she didn't know what it was. Light, there was so much she wanted to say to Lan, but she couldn't find the words for most of it. "The night before our camp was attacked, when you left Stepin and me alone by the fire, were you…" Nynaeve hesitated, before settling on a phrase she'd encountered in a battered copy of Hearts of Flame ,"playing matchmaker?"
Now Lan looked distinctly amused, burn him. "Yes. Did it work?"
Nynaeve didn't say anything. If he'd been talking to Stepin, he already knew very well that it hadn't. She wasn't going to keep asking all the questions, trying to get enough out of him to know where they stood. So she sat there, silently, not taking her eyes from his face. If he wanted something more of her, he would have to say so. Did he want anything from her? She remembered what Stepin had said, that the bond between an Aes Sedai and her Warder was closer than a husband and wife - Lan could never be wholly hers, no matter how much either of them might wish otherwise. Part of him would always belong to Moiraine, and now that she had a Warder of her own, she understood, as she could not have before, just how deep that mutual belonging ran. But she didn't know for certain whether she wanted Lan to be hers like that. Well, she did know, but Nynaeve was not one to let her heart take the lead when it ran ahead of her good sense. She'd known the man less than two months. What her heart and her head could agree on was that she needed more time with him, a night, even an hour, to see if what she felt between them was worth building on - and if that was as far as it went -
Lan looked away. "You deserve better."
He couldn't have known the direction of her thoughts, could he? "That's not for you to decide," she said, trying to sound firm and in control and not like a child caught considering whether to steal a cooling pie off a window ledge.
"I have nothing to offer you, Nynaeve. Not even myself."
"I don't care!" Nynaeve hardly knew what she was saying. Light, why wouldn't Lan look at her? "You can't pretend you don't feel anything for me. I won't believe you if you try. Look, I'm not asking you to put a ribbon in my braid. I just want -" she could think of no dignified way to finish that sentence.
"Would you really take me to your bed, knowing there can never be anything more than that between us?"
"I don't accept that."
"I'm a Warder, sworn to the Flame of Tar Valon, and to Moiraine Sedai", he placed a subtle emphasis on the title. "I come and go as she says. And even if I weren't, or if I were somehow released from my bond, I would still be…" he trailed off, shook his head. "I have commitments which cannot be set aside."
Commitments? Light, was he already married? Nynaeve tried not to picture it - some Borderlander woman waiting for Lan in Sheinar or Kandor, the happy recipient of the humor and gentleness she'd seen flashes of, on the rare occasions that he let his guard down, and the passion she knew was underneath. "What are you trying to say?" She asked, when she thought she could trust her voice to be steady. It almost was.
Suddenly, his hand was holding hers, gently, and she was filled with a sense of warmth all out of proportion to the simple touch. And finally, he met her eyes.
"I'm telling you that you deserve more than to be left alone, waiting to hear that I've gotten myself killed, in Moiraine's service or in the blight."
"And if I'm the Dragon Reborn? How long do most ta'veren that powerful live, once the Pattern turns them to its purposes?" Lan looked startled, and she pressed the advantage while she had it. "Light, Lan, my Warder just tried to kill himself. I'm no stranger to death, and I'm not afraid of losing you." That was a lie, but the exact truth would have been too complicated. She squeezed his hand instead, feeling the calluses. "I'm afraid that this is the calm before the storm."
Lan inhaled sharply. Was he surprised? Or something else?
"You're right. Not about you and me, that's still a bad idea. Moiraine's planning something."
"She hasn't told me." He held her gaze, and Nynaeve suppressed a shiver at the sheer intensity. But for once, she knew what he was hoping she would understand without his saying it. She'd barely been bonded to Stepin for a full day, and already she had trouble imagining making any serious plans without at least telling him what she was up to. If Moiraine didn't want Lan to know what she was planning, that was…worrying.
It would have to be desperately important, that much was obvious. More important than the unconditional trust implicit in the Warder bond. And it would have to be something her Warder would want, no, something he would be willing to defy his Aes Sedai, to prevent. There weren't many things of which that was true. As far as Nynaeve knew, a Warder wouldn't generally act against the wishes of the one who held his bond unless she was putting her life at risk. If Moiraine was keeping her plans secret from Lan, she thought there was a good chance she would die in carrying them out, and didn't want Lan to know until the last possible moment, when he would have the least chance of stopping her or talking her out of it. But if Moiraine died… Nynaeve's eyes widened.
Lan nodded, though he looked anything but satisfied. "Do you understand now?"
"I don't care ." She didn't, not in the way he meant. And she knew better than to say aloud what she thought of Moiraine's plans, of how bloody careless she was with the people included in them. But she thought she had the beginnings of a plan of her own. "It doesn't matter right now," she said, not bothering to force any lightness into her tone. "You'll see sense or you won't. I'm not going anywhere. Listen, is there anything I should be doing for Stepin, anything an ordinary healer wouldn't know to do?"
"You're far from an ordinary healer, Nynaeve." Lan looked at her in a way that did make her shiver. "Give him back his practice weapons. Keeping busy is supposed to help. And make sure he eats - he'll starve himself if you let him, likely even if he doesn't mean to."
Nynaeve nodded. "Anything else?"
Lan smiled slowly, amusement once again visible. "Well, some Aes Sedai believe you should put him into the arms of a woman. Or do it yourself. They say no man can focus on death then."
Nynaeve stared at him. "Are you serious?"
Lan shrugged. "I don't know if it works. Saving a Warder like this… successes are rare enough that it's hard to know what really helps and what's tradition."
Nynaeve felt suddenly uneasy. "How rare?"
"Less than one in ten, probably more than one in a hundred. Not that many Warders outlive their Aes Sedai, and most Sisters aren't willing to make the attempt. " And ," he gave her a significant look, " in the past four hundred years, only one sister has saved more than one, and I don't think you'd want to resort to her methods."
Light, was there anything he didn't catch? "I'll keep that in mind," she said neutrally. She remembered Stepin saying 'they have methods for trying to preserve Warders like me'. "Is there anything else?"
"Give him a task, something so important he must remain alive in order to fulfill it."
Nynaeve was temporarily spared wondering how under the Light she was meant to do that , as her awareness of Stepin through the bond informed her that he was starting to wake up. "I wish he could sleep for more than an hour at a time," she said, reluctantly disentangling her hand from Lan's.
"You should go."
She stood. "Thank you, for the advice about Stepin," she said, with her best effort at Aes Sedai formality. "As to the other, we're not done talking about it. I haven't given up."
"You may as well. I won't put you through that."
Well . Nynaeve sniffed, and strode out of the dining room.
Apparently, most of the time, Warders who didn't share quarters with their Aes Sedai, or who were at the Tower alone for some reason, ate in a smaller, and considerably less ornate, dining room in the Guards' barracks, where the Tower Guard and the Warder trainees lived. Nynaeve was more comfortable there than she had been anywhere else on the Tower grounds - the feeling in the air was much the same as it had been when she sat at the Warders' fire on their journey, although most of the handful of other Warders present seemed to avoid looking at Stepin.
It's like they think he's already dead . She pushed the thought away - if she dwelt on it she was likely to start shouting at people, and that wouldn't help anything.
The food here was served less formally, at a long counter in the back of the room, with fruit, cheeses, sliced meat, and small loaves of bread piled on platters, and a few large pots standing behind it, from which boys and young men - ranging from about Ewin Finngar's age to a few years older than Nynaeve - helped ladle up stew or porridge.
Nynaeve had only intended to get in line with Stepin to make sure he took enough food to maintain his strength, but surprised herself by filling her own plate with bread, cheese, and a couple of pears. On impulse, she took a large handful of blueberries off one of the smaller platters.
"You, uh, you know those mugs are meant for ale, don't you?" asked Stepin.
"I like tea," she retorted, and resumed filling the mug from a large tea urn, and allowing Stepin time to fill his mug with whatever he wanted without feeling scrutinized. It was a delicate balance, making sure he knew she wouldn't let him lose control, without trying to control him. At least he was eating, now. Nynaeve had known a few people to starve themselves deliberately, when they were drinking to manage some inner pain. When Natti Cauthon had come to her complaining that her milk was starting to dry up, and little Bode and Eldrin not yet old enough even for soft foods, Nynaeve had made up the birdsfoot and stinging nettle tea she asked for…and added a heaping spoonful of powdered ink cap mushroom to the mixture. She didn't think Natti had ever worked out why she sicked up every time she had so much as a sip of wine until after the twins were weaned. And Nynaeve was content to keep it that way, although she thought Mat at least suspected. He'd come around a few times in the years that followed, asking for willow bark for his mother's "headaches" as though she didn't know perfectly well they had that at home, and looking at her sideways the same way he did at the less respectable peddlers who came through, the ones from whom he was somehow able to buy sweets or other small gifts for his sisters. She'd refused, or in one case sent him home with plain willowbark, when they really were out, and the twins were down with a fever. There was only so much it was right to do for someone who didn't want to be helped. A delicate balance.
Hot tea spilled over the edge of the mug, scalding her hand. She yelped, and nearly dropped everything she was holding, but then Stepin was there, relieving her of the mug and plate, and handing her a soft cloth to dry her hand and the edge of her sleeve. A moment later, he replaced it with a second cloth, this one soaked in cool water. The burn wasn't bad, and the wet fabric helped considerably.
Stepin led her to a table, where he'd already set down their food.
"Thank you," she said, holding up her hand. Then she winced.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have let that happen."
"Oh, no. It's not my hand. I have ointment in my room. People noticed, didn't they?"
Stepin pressed his lips together. "How soon do you think we can find your friends?"
Nynaeve sighed. "Egwene will be trying to get to the city, if she's- if she's able to." If she's still alive. "Before we got separated, Moiraine was filling her head with notions of being Aes Sedai. She'll come here, unless she thinks Rand would have gone somewhere else. We have to hope she has enough sense to know that he'll go wherever he thought she'd go."
"You're still planning to take them all back to your little, uh, village out in Andor?"
"I'm their Wisdom. It's my job to keep them safe, and that means getting them away from here."
Nynaeve could feel his doubt, but she didn't ask him about it. She didn't want to hear him say that Egwene might not be willing to leave. That if Rand was right, if Mat could channel, only the White Tower had any chance of helping him. Soon enough for those thoughts when she had everyone where she could see them.
"That food's not decorative, you know," she said instead. She put a piece of cheese in her mouth, to demonstrate, and then scooped up the blueberries and sprinkled them into Stepin's porridge.
He smiled at her, forced though it clearly was, and finally started eating. It hurt Nynaeve to feel the conscious effort each swallow took. She took a large gulp of her tea, trying to ease some of the sympathetic tightness in her own throat, the dryness in her mouth. To her surprise, it helped both of them, a little, and they ate in silence for a while. Stepin hadn't said anything about his attempted suicide that morning, and Nynaeve didn't either. He was ill, and this was just a symptom of his illness - it would happen again, she was sure, before he began to recover. She would pull him back, every time, for as long as it took.
An older man, a Warder, by the way he moved, approached their table. She stiffened, and started trying to reach Saidar. If he was here to try and make her give up Stepin's bond, he wouldn't do it without a fight.
"Thank you, Aes Sedai, for looking after our Stepin," he said. "I know the risk you take, and I'm grateful. We all are."
"Oh, no," she started to say "I'm not-" But she felt something through the bond, and changed course. "It's no more than anyone ought to do."
"Hammar, this is Nynaeve," said Stepin. "Nynaeve, Hammar, uh, teaches the trainee Warders."
It was the first time Nynaeve had been introduced to a Warder without being told the name of the Aes Sedai who held his bond. "You trained Stepin and Lan?"
"Not Lan, no. Moiraine Sedai brought him back from her first adventure up in the Borderlands, already knowing more about the sword than I'm able to drum into most of my students' skulls. But I had Stepin for a few months, after Kerene Sedai, may the Creator shelter her and the last embrace of the mother welcome her home, fished him out of the tavern she found him in."
Stepin shrugged. "I tried to start a fight with her. She thought it was funny."
Nynaeve stared at him. " You tried to start a bar fight with an Aes Sedai ?" Not that she hadn't done much the same thing, when she'd first met Moiraine, but - well, Hammar didn't need to know that, and she could tell Stepin about it later.
"I was rather hoping she'd kill me. It, it didn't work out that way."
What Nynaeve felt through the bond put the lie to the second half. As far as Stepin was concerned, she had killed him, in the end, it just hadn't finished happening yet, but there was no way he could say so without seeming to blame Kerene, his Kerene, whom he loved, who had given him everything he had ever wanted.
Nynaeve nodded, to show she understood, and tried to project a sense of confidence and reassurance. She wasn't going to let him die, and he'd come to see that living was better. He would .
"We were about to head over to the practice yards," she said.
Stepin gave no outward sign of the surprise he felt. He was too well trained to show that he had no idea what she was planning. This midday meal had been the final test - whatever Lan said, she wasn't about to let Stepin undertake hard exercise when he'd consumed nothing in the past few days but tea, brandy, and one small, poisonous fruit. If he couldn't eat, she would have waited at least another day.
"I'll come with you," said Hammar. "It's about time I reminded my students that they're here to work ." He raised his voice slightly on the last word, and several of the boys who weren't serving food left the dining room at a dead run, apparently in fear of whatever would befall them if they were not back at the training grounds by the time Hammar returned.
At least they didn't have far to go. The practice yards almost directly adjoined the barracks, just in a different direction than the one from which they'd come. It was a large space of bare, hard-packed ground, much like the village green in Emond's Field looked at the end of an unusually long winter - except for the racks of practice swords at several points along the edge, and the pairs of men sparring, spaced out far enough not to trip over each other. Most of them were in pairs, at any rate. Lan was practicing with Maxim and Ihvon, the latter having left his bow for the moment in favor of a sword.
Lan was beautiful in motion, and it took more effort than Nynaeve would have liked to admit not to stare. Fortunately, it only took him a moment to notice them, and call a halt to the mock combat.
"Nynaeve," said Ihvon, "we didn't know if you were coming out today."
Maksim, ever the more demonstrative of the two, unreservedly embraced Stepin.
All Lan said was "It's good to see you both." Which could have meant almost anything, although Nynaeve thought she understood most of what he was implying.
"I tried to poison myself this morning," said Stepin, "I'm not sure why that means I'm allowed back in the training yard, but I'm not complaining."
"He did poison himself," said Nynaeve, "with a peach he snuck into his pocket last night."
"Naughty boy!" said Maksim. "Should we go easy on you, then?"
"There's no need. Wisdom Nynaeve put me back together good as new. Lan?"
Lan didn't say anything, just selected a quarterstaff from a barrel next to the nearest rack. Practice swords were made from loose bundles of lathes, but there was no equivalent for Stepin's twin axes, and they would be on more even footing with the staffs. Warders often practiced with real weapons, but Nynaeve had made it clear that Stepin wasn't to handle so much as a table knife without her approval and supervision - a quarterstaff didn't have a point or edge he could use to harm himself.
Stepin followed Lan back to the spot where he'd been sparring with Maksim and Ihvon. Nynaeve settled herself on the grass to watch. They started slowly, moving through what looked to Nynaeve's untrained eye like a prearranged series of exchanges. A few times, one of them moved to begin a block before the other started the corresponding strike.
She'd seen how effective Stepin could be in a real fight, in the woods between the camp and the cave. But then, she'd killed a man in that battle, using only her small belt knife. It had happened so quickly. When she'd dealt with the trolloc in the pool, she'd had almost a full minute, nearly forever in such a situation, to think about what she was going to do, to decide how to do it. But when that man came at her, he seemed to appear out of nowhere. There hadn't been time to think -
"Alanna told us what you did," said Ihvon, startling Nynaeve out of her recollection.
A good thing he had, she realized, as she felt her heart begin to slow down to normal. Light, she hadn't felt it before, with everything going on. Somewhere in that battle, brief as it was, she had taken a wound to her mind. Such injuries were not common in the Two Rivers, where life was slow and predictable, but Mistress Barran had taught her the signs. This wound was not as deep as some, but if she didn't tend to it, it would not heal properly, and like any untreated wound, it could fester. Only, when would she find the time?
It would have to be soon, though. A reverie like she'd just had would almost certainly spill over onto Stepin, and he was in no condition for that. She focused on the bond: razor edged pain, some agitation, a thread of concern - he'd noticed what was happening to her, likely before she had, and was monitoring the bond for further signs that he was needed, but she sensed none of the overwhelming panic that had been creeping up on her.
"Sorry," she said. "She told you?"
"There aren't many secrets between an Aes Sedai and her Warders."
Nynaeve sighed. "We're trying to keep it quiet, but at this rate I don't know how we're going to stop the whole Tower from figuring it out."
"You'd have to stop going everywhere together," said Maksim.
"I'm a Wisdom! He'll hurt himself of he's not watched!" Her anger over how long it had taken anyone to tell her was coming through, but then, she wasn't trying very hard to stop it.
"It doesn't matter." If Maksim was bothered by her tone, he didn't show it. "No one spends that much time with a da'ayende unless she means to bond him, or already has."
"What does that mean, da'ayende?"
"One who has been freed," said Hammar.
Nynaeve was too tired to be startled, but she wondered how long he'd been listening.
"Or 'one who has gone through a transition'," said Ihvon.
"Or one who has died," Maksim added.
"It hasn't been in common use for over a hundred years," said Hammar. "I'm surprised you know it."
Nynaeve had questions of her own, but a shift in Stepin's emotions drew her attention. The pain had lessened, just a bit, but the agitation, the same unsettled energy that had kept him from sleeping until after sunrise last night, was getting stronger. He and Lan were moving faster now, fast enough that she couldn't tell whether they were still following a routine. Their movements were graceful enough to make it look like they were dancing, rather than sparring, but in Nynaeve's limited experience, Warders moved like that even when they were fighting in earnest.
She shook her head, trying to clear it. Her thoughts were starting to go in circles. She needed to work out a way to get some real sleep without putting Stepin in danger. Perhaps she shouldn't have sat down.
"Oh," she said, realization finally filtering through, "she sent you to find out if I forced him."
Hammar looked startled. Maksim and Ihvon…didn't.
"I never believed it," said Maksim.
"She doesn't know you that well," said Ihvon, apparently more intent on defending Alanna than himself.
At least being angry helped her feel more awake. "Oh, yes, because wrapping my entire life around a suicidal man twice my age, against his will, sounds like exactly the sort of thing I would do. I didn't. You can ask him yourselves, if you like." It took effort not to add that she would sooner have killed him herself than force anyone to remain entangled with the Aes Sedai and their doings when they didn't want to, whatever the cost of freedom might be.
"Alanna offered to bond Stepin before I did," she added to Hammar. "I bonded him before he'd really said yes or no to her." There, that should be safe enough, although she was making a guess about the etiquette involved in these situations.
Hammar nodded. "It wouldn't be the first time a new Green got… overenthusiastic when she thought someone else might bond the man she was after. But anyone can see you're not that sort. And Stepin isn't exactly -"
Nynaeve held up a hand, and Hammar fell silent. "Something's wrong." The shift in Stepin's mood had been gradual. That same edge of desperation that she ought to have noticed that morning. Anticipation, fear. An odd sort of relief. Lan and Stepin's sparring had sped up still more, and at first she couldn' make sense of what she was seeing.
Lan was no longer attacking at all. He stood his ground, defending himself as Stepin struck at him over and over. He didn't look distressed, or like he was exerting himself particularly, but if he stopped, or lost focus for even a moment… Stepin was crying, silently, unaware of anything except the fight and the pain that drove him.
The strange thing was, as far as Nynaeve could tell, he wasn't actually trying to hurt Lan. She sensed no malice through the bond, no violent intent toward anyone other than himself, for all he was attacking in deadly earnest.
"Blood and ashes," she said abruptly, drawing looks of mild surprise from all three of the Warders she was sitting with. "He's trying to force Lan into, into hurting him."
To her irritation, they visibly relaxed, and Ihvon actually smiled.
"Oh," he said, "is that all?"
Nynaeve tugged at her braid. It was beneath her dignity to shriek in frustration, but the impulse to do so was strong . "What do you mean, 'Is that all'?"
"Watch them, Nynaeve Sedai,"said Hammar. "Does Lan look hard pressed to you?"
He didn't. As far as Nynaeve could see, Lan could keep on as he was until nightfall. Rationally, she knew that Stepin's stamina would fail long before that, underfed and short of sleep as he was these days. Still, she couldn't like it.
She only just managed to stop herself from asking whether she should intervene. Even if Hammar didn't think she were Aes Sedai, even if it weren't vital to preserve that illusion as far as she could without directly claiming the title, even if Aes Sedai notions of propriety didn't prohibit a sister asking for advice in managing her own Warder almost as strictly as they forbade unsolicited interference, Stepin was her Warder, and she should be able to figure out how to look after him on her own.
She watched them a moment longer, focusing on Lan's face, on the emotions she could feel from Stepin. Lan didn't look upset, but he did look troubled. And Stepin - Stepin, more than anything else, felt out-of-control. He knew what was happening to him, of course, but he had very little choice in how he reacted to it. No, she couldn't let this continue.
Nynaeve took a breath, attempting to project reassurance through the bond, and stood up. She was surprised to discover that she was a little unsteady. Light she hadn't been that long without sleep, had she?
"Stepin!" she yelled. "Stop!"
He heard her. She knew he heard her, but he didn't stop, didn't falter.
"Desta!" Shouted Hammar. Everyone else in the practice yard, the handful of other Warders and trainees, stopped what they were doing and returned to their starting positions. Stepin still didn't, and Lan, as a result, couldn't.
Nynaeve approached them, keeping her pace steady, trying to convey that sense of untouchable dignity with which the Aes Sedai did everything. She didn't think Stepin would hurt her. She knew he wouldn't do so deliberately and it didn't feel like his self-control was so far gone that he'd do so by accident. Still, she moved carefully, as she would with a skittish horse, making sure she was in his line of sight before she got into striking range.
It worked better than she'd dared to hope. Where her words hadn't been enough to break his focus, the sight of her drew his gaze almost automatically, some instinct even more deeply rooted than the desire to die compelling his attention. Only for a moment, but that was long enough for Lan to do something that took the quarterstaff out of Stepin's hands. Confusion melted into a nauseating mixture of shame and despair as it clattered to the ground.
"Why?" he asked.
And there were so many things he could have been asking about, and Nynaeve wasn't sure it mattered which one he meant. She took both of his hands, comforting touch and the gentlest possible restraint.
"Why, Nynaeve? I, I got so close this morning. Why can't you just let me go?!" He made a half-hearted effort to pull his hands from hers, the weakness of the movement sharply at odds with the force of his words.
"Look at what just happened! I'm not safe . I'm not in control of myself. This pain isn't going to end , and I have to do something with it. Perhaps you can stop me from harming myself, but can you protect everyone else from me?"
"I'm prepared to risk it," said Lan dryly.
Nynaeve had been so focused on Stepin, on holding herself so fully open to the bond that maybe some of that still-fresh grief and old, bitter self-loathing could pass into her, and so relieve her Warder of it, that she'd forgotten Lan was there.
"What if I'm not? You're Lan bloody Mandragoran - you can pretty well look after yourself. Can everybody here say the same? Can she? "
Light, Lan, don't take it personally, she thought. Stepin didn't want, didn't intend, to hurt her, but he was afraid, unsure of himself. He might, if he thought it was a way out, although he'd be fighting himself every step of the way. But the threat wasn't really directed at her; where Stepin had failed to force Lan into killing him, he hoped instead to provoke. He'd had as much chance as anyone to see how protective Lan could be.
To her relief and amazement, Lan laughed. "You'll have to do better than that, my friend. Wisdom al'Meara is more than capable of protecting herself, when she's not rushing heedlessly into danger."
The words were directed at Stepin, but that smile was all for her, and it warmed her down to her toes. She blushed, trying to look anywhere that wasn't at either of them.
Lan complicated her efforts immensely by moving closer, putting his hand on Stepin's shoulder. "Kindly refrain from trying to make me the instrument of your suicide again," he said softly. "I won't oblige you."
"I'll do my best," said Stepin, attempting a smile of his own. "No promises."
Through the bond, Nynaeve felt something shift, a sense of pressure lifting, just slightly, a subtle haze clearing. Stepin's hands tightened on hers, and he met her eyes for the first time since they'd gone outside.
"Nynaeve," he said, "you're exhausted. Burn me, you haven't slept since, uh, yesterday morning, have you?"
"Not to speak of." There was no point in lying, under the circumstances. "I'll be all right. I've stayed up longer than this, helping women give birth and the like."
"She won't." Stepin was speaking to Lan now, blithely disregarding her indignation, which she knew he could feel, at so abruptly being relegated to the role of patient. "She's channeled at least twice today, one of those a pretty serious Healing."
"And she hasn't built up the stamina for it," said Ihvon.
He and Maksim had caught up with her not long after Lan had disarmed Stepin, but they'd stayed out of the conversation until now, keeping enough distance to maintain the illusion of privacy, if not the reality.
"There wasn't another choice," she protested. "There still isn't. Stepin needs someone with him all the time . Even if I sleep when he does, what's to say he won't wake up before me." If he was going to talk over her head, she saw no reason not to do the same. "And you, all of you, disappeared as soon as he'd returned that bloody, stupid ring!"
She hadn't meant to shout. She hadn't realized she was going to cry either. All the Warders, all save Stepin, looked rather taken aback. Maksim and Ihvon exchanged one of those meaning-laden looks that seemed to comprise most of their communication with each other. She wasn't sure if it was something to do with the bond they shared with Alanna - she'd seen married couples do much the same thing. Lan's expression was once again unreadable.
"Tradition as strong as law," said Maksim, his voice unsteady.
Nynaeve raised her eyebrows, waiting for him to elaborate.
"Have you seen the room where we melt the rings down?" asked Stepin.
Nynaeve shook her head. "You told me there's a ledge?"
"Uh-huh. Maybe half the men who make it as far as I did choose to jump. It's supposed to be uh, a pretty easy way to go." He took a shaky breath. "I couldn't do it, not with everyone watching."
"If he comes back out of that room," said Lan, "we try to give him some privacy, for a few days at least."
"To let him choose his own time and place," added Ihvon.
Only the fact that they all sounded deeply unhappy about it stopped Nynaeve from cursing the lot of them for a bunch of Light-blinded woolheads. She could even see the sense in it, for all it went against everything she knew and believed about caring for diseases of the mind.
"You need to rest, Nynaeve," said Stepin.
"We'll take it in shifts," said Lan. "He won't be left alone."
"Most second bondings are done by older Greens who already have other Warders," said Maksim. "Since you don't, Alanna has agreed to lend you our services for this purpose, as our other duties allow."
"Somehow, I doubt she said anything so formal," said Lan.
"She said 'That girl is all alone, and has no idea what she's doing. Go help her, before she hurts herself'," said Ihvon, in a creditable imitation of Alanna.
Nynaeve sniffed. She thought about telling them where they could put their 'help', but she really was tired. "I'll try to rest if you will, Stepin. You haven't gotten much more sleep than I have."
Stepin shook his head. "I can't."
Lan, who had not moved away, or removed his hand from Stepin's shoulder, leaned in further and whispered something in the other Warder's ear.
Stepin blinked, and straightened his posture. "Is it ever?"
Lan shrugged. "Death is lighter than a feather, duty heavier than a mountain. Come on, before one of you collapses where you stand."
He collected Stepin's quarterstaff, and returned both weapons to the barrel they'd come from, then started back towards the Tower. Nynaeve let go of one of Stepin's hands, and they followed him. Maksim and Ihvon fell into step on either side of them.
"You didn't really think that was going to work, did you?" asked Maksim. "I doubt there are three people in the world who could make Lan kill them in a straight fight if he didn't want to."
"Can't blame me for trying. I had to do something. "
They ended up in Stepin's room. Nynaeve wasn't about to let herself be separated from him, whatever assurances the other Warders made, and she was long past caring what anyone thought. If rumors got around that she and Stepin were sharing a bed in more than the most strictly literal sense, it might avert suspicion. So she made tea with goatstongue and marisin, for Stepin, while Alanna's Warders searched out a nightgown that more or less fit her.
When she had changed into it (behind a folding screen - she had not lost all sense of propriety), and covered her hair with the silk scarf Stepin had found for her the night before, she discovered that they'd also located another bottle of brandy, from which Stepin was already drinking. The alcohol didn't touch the pain, but it dulled some of the agitation.
"You can't keep doing that forever, you know," she said, as she sat down next to him on the bed. Then she took the bottle from him, drank a sizeable swallow of her own, and handed it back. It wasn't far past midday, but that hardly seemed to matter under the circumstances.
"I know." He looked away, suddenly self-conscious. "At some point we'll, uh, need to talk about how to handle that. When the time comes."
Nynaeve didn't think he noticed that it was the first time he'd spoken of the future in a way that implied he might be around for it.
"I know," she said.
Though it took the better part of an hour, and most of the brandy, before Stepin professed himself ready to try sleeping, the atmosphere was convivial, and the feeling of clean clothes, clothes in which she had not been traveling for a month, on her skin was more comforting than she'd expected. Lan, who would be staying with them, sat in the only chair. Maksim and Ihvon occupied the rug at the foot of the bed, leaning on each other, and did most of the work to keep the conversation going. They left when Nynaeve surrendered to the inevitable and got under the blankets.
Stepin, bafflingly, attempted to lie down on top of the covers. Nynaeve, dizzy with fatigue by now, and in no mood for further stubbornness, stared at him.
"Thought you'd want to keep things proper," he said, sounding as dazed as she felt.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "You'll take a chill. In any case, we're well chaperoned."
Lan waved vaguely, without looking up from the book he'd found.
"Well, if you insist." He got into bed properly, though he kept as much distance between them as the space allowed. "You should mask the bond, though. I always have nightmares now, it'll wake you up."
It was the second time he'd mentioned 'masking the bond'. Nynaeve still didn't know what it meant, much less how to do it, and now didn't seem like the time to ask. "Good. That means I'll be there to help you get back to sleep." Impulsively, she sought out his hand, under the bedclothes. She felt his surprise, but once again he did not pull away. "I meant to ask," she said, whispered almost.
"What did Lan say to you, earlier?"
"Oh, that. He said 'The watch is not done'."