Chapter XVII: Aciem Nocte
When Cristiel opened her eyes, she was greeted with a ray of sunlight shining through the window above her. The brightness made her head throb and she groaned. Shielding her face from the light, she sat up slowly. Her stomach churned. She pushed herself off the bed and grappled for a chamber pot, the contents of her stomach emptying into the metal bowl. She wiped her mouth with a towel and leaned back onto the bed with a sigh to let her headache subside. Whatever she'd done the night before, it could not have been good. All she could remember was laughing at the drinking game between Legolas and Gimli, and then stomping away from a conversation with her father. After that it was all a blur.
Grimacing at the taste that lingered in her mouth, she got out of bed again and stumbled into the next room. She found an empty private chamber and doused her face with water from someone's wash basin. She located a cracked mirror across the room and briefly glanced at herself. There were bags under her eyes and her hair was tangled and falling out of its two braids which Éowyn had done for her yesterday. She undid the braids and combed her fingers through the knots that had formed, then pulled two sections of hair out of her face, leaving the rest to hang down her back. It would have to do for now.
She left the chamber and ambled down the hall. Passing the kitchens, the smells of lye and oil caused her head to spin and she hurried away. As she reached the main hall of Meduseld, she heard Gandalf's voice rising above the rest, and decided they must have been discussing something extremely important. Her curiosity winning out once again, she came into the Hall quietly, just as Gandalf was shuffling Pippin away as Merry followed behind. She watched them leave curiously, then turned her attention back towards the king. Theoden was pacing back and forth across the width of the room, but Aragorn was nowhere to be seen. She crossed to a table where Gimli and Legolas were lounging, the former enjoying his pipe. They greeted her warmly, but Cristiel didn't miss the snicker from Gimli. She attempted to give the dwarf a narrow-eyed stare, but couldn't quite hold it when Legolas let out a soft chuckle.
"What happened last night?" she croaked. She coughed as she realized how dry her throat was, and this set off her headache. She groaned and lay her head in her arms on the table top. A moment later, Legolas' hand on her shoulder made her look up, bleery eyed, but she took his offered cup of water gratefully.
"You were very drunk last night," said Legolas. "Aragorn had to drag you out of here and put you to bed like a child. You put up quite a fight before conceding, and you drew the attentions of many men." Despite the graveness in his voice, his blue eyes were glittering.
Cristiel felt her face grow hot, and she covered it in her hands. "There's nothing I can say that would make it go away, is there? I don't know what got into me."
"Everyone knows how much liquor you can handle now," said Gimli. "Much more liquor than any lass I know, I might add." He leaned in closer, lowering his voice. "Just be glad that young Éomer over there didn't deal with you himself, eh?"
She craned her neck until her head throbbed. Éomer had entered the Hall accompanied by several of his men. She froze for a second, staring, hoping he hadn't seen her, embarrassed at the thought that he'd watched her drink herself into slumber. She leaned towards Legolas.
"Help me out here," she whispered.
He stared at her.
"How about raiding the kitchen?" she offered.
Gimli chuckled as Legolas' expression grew amused, but the elf didn't move to leave. Éomer was crossing the room, moving towards them, and Cristiel panicked.
"I just want to avoid him!" she hissed.
Legolas followed her gaze to Éomer and the corner of his mouth lifted into a crooked smile. "Shall we visit the stables?"
Cristiel immediately stood up, ignoring her persistent headache. "Anywhere but here."
Gimli grunted. "I was hoping we'd pillage the kitchens..."
They made a pass by the kitchens anyway to get Gimli to stop grumbling. The dwarf had saved the workers there the trouble of dumping out the leftover meat to the dogs by eating it himself.
The stables were quiet. The horses had already been fed and were munching contentedly on their morning grains. Cristiel wandered down one aisle of stalls until she found Brego, the horse Aragorn had ridden at Helm's Deep. The dark, majestic stallion stood with one hoof cocked lazily on its toe. His ears pricked up as she approached his stall, and he gave a gentle snort when her hand met his glossy face.
Brego raised his head suddenly and Cristiel turned. It was Gandalf. She acknowledged him with a smile.
"You're up rather late," he pointed out.
Her smile grew sheepish. She opened her mouth to give an apology for her behavior, but he cut her off.
"I do not have time for small talk nor can I explain the situation at hand. Things are now in motion that cannot be undone. I must ride for Minis Tirith and I am taking Pippin with me. Meanwhile, I want you to make yourself useful."
Cristiel straightened at his tone. "Of course I should make myself useful," she muttered, gazing back at Brego.
"Listen to me! If the beacons of Gondor are lit, which they had better be if the Steward has any sense left in him, Théoden will ride to Gondor's aid. When that happens, you must ride for Minis Tirith."
Cristiel tore her gaze from Brego. "Why?"
"The men of Gondor will need to know that help is coming. A great storm is approaching, and hope will be Gondor's best defense."
"Gandalf, I do not—What about—" She stopped when the wizard narrowed his eyes at her. "How do I get there?" she conceded.
"Follow the White Mountains east," he replied, then he whirled away.
Gandalf stopped and turned, his face betraying the fact that he'd been expecting her questions.
"Why are you riding for Minis Tirith? Why can't you tell the men of Gondor that Rohan will ride to their aid? I don't understand why you need me."
"Because I do not know if Théoden will ride at all," he replied softly. "And the men of Gondor are more likely to listen to a beautiful young woman than a crazy old man." He smiled briefly then disappeared around the corner. Cristiel blinked, frozen in place until Legolas came into view.
"Did you hear any of that?" she asked.
"Of course," he replied. "And you should be thrilled."
She swallowed. "I don't want to be separated from him again," she said softly.
Legolas' next words were stolen from his mouth as Shadowfax raced past them with Gandalf and Pippin aboard. They watched as the white stallion galloped away down the road and left Edoras in the dust.
"You should do what he asked of you," Legolas said finally.
"And what if I don't?"
"You wouldn't want to suffer the wrath of the White Wizard, Estelwen."
The hours after Gandalf's rushed departure passed unbearably slowly, and by midday Cristiel thought she could take it no longer. His words to her had been simple, yet something very profound still clung to them even as she replayed them in her mind. She had mixed feelings about riding to Minis Tirith, regarding the idea as something she had once desperately wanted to do, but not anymore now that Boromir was no longer with her. He had bragged about his beloved city so much, and if he was still alive, would have probably returned to it days ago.
But now all she wanted was to stay with Aragorn, and possibly avoid Éomer as much as possible. She still didn't remember what had happened last night, but she knew that when alcohol was involved nothing good would come of it.
But now as she gazed at the landscape around her, she grew determined to drive anymore negativity from her mind. She would go for a ride. Not a long one, but just enough of one to reassure herself that her life hadn't fallen apart completely. She knew that if she continued to yearn and pray for some impossible miracle, depression would not be far behind hopelessness.
"Though the situation might seem hopeless already," she said to herself as she led Raud from his stall.
She tacked up quickly and mounted as the chestnut pranced into the sunlight of the yard. The city was quiet, and she immediately realized why she'd wanted to ride so badly: the atmosphere of Edoras was dark and dismal, sharply contrasted against the wide blue sky and the endless grassy fields that stretched towards the mountains in the south. And she was growing increasingly weary of this shadow.
She paid no attention to the sound of shod hooves behind her and urged Raud into a canter. They went down the steep road through the center of the city and brushed past the guards at the city gate. Raud snorted as they came into the open fields and she urged him on faster. As they galloped over a rise in the foothills, Cristiel shut her eyes for just a moment, listening to the wind whistle around them, the beating of hooves in the earth, feeling the horse moving powerfully beneath her. She opened her eyes as the stallion's movements shifted and slowed. Another rider had followed them.
"Where are you off to, Cristiel?"
She reined in her mount at the voice. Coming towards her on a large dapple gray was Éomer, riding his horse's long strides comfortably. Cristiel bit her lip.
"What brings you beyond the walls of Edoras?" he asked.
"Perhaps nothing but my own whim, my lord," she answered curtly.
"It is only natural for me to wonder," he replied. She nodded in understanding.
"Shall we ride together?" she offered, immediately regretting her words.
Éomer's face softened as he smiled. "Of course."
Cristiel shook her head at herself as they pushed their horses into a casual trot. She couldn't believe she'd invited him to join her. It wasn't as if he'd decline being with her. She knew his intentions well enough by now.
"Are you alright?"
She looked over at him in surprise. "I'm fine."
"I had wondered, especially after your performance last night."
She felt her face grow hot. "It was Haldir. He—"
"Blaming it on your elf friend, are we?"
She glared at him this time. "Did you not hear me when I said he kissed me? He told me he loved me and that I would be happy with him. My childhood friend, of all people!" Her strangling grip on the reins caused Raud to toss his head so she let them slide through her fingers. "He only left because I rejected him."
"So that's why you got yourself drunk last night."
She peered at his crooked smile. "One of several reasons, I suppose." She sighed and pushed Raud into a canter. Éomer quickly followed suit.
They rode across the foothills in complete silence, keeping a brisk canter, and Cristiel glancing at Éomer less often than he at her. When she could stand their silence no longer, she loosened the reins to let Raud run. The stallion tossed his head with a snort and galloped at full speed across the plain, angling towards the city. Cristiel shut her eyes again, but this time all she could hear were the hoofbeats of Éomer's horse beside her, the creaking of saddles, and the wind.
She still had not said a word to Éomer after they'd dismounted in the stable. She hurried through the motions of untacking and quickly found a stableboy who would take care of Raud for her, if only so she could escape Éomer's presence. She walked quickly from the stable to the palace, pulling her cloak tight against the chill afternoon wind, frustrated at the boot steps behind her. So she stopped and whirled on him.
"Éomer, is there something you want from me?"
The man slowed his pace as he approached her, but caught her arm before she could step back. "You asked me to stay with you."
"That was before..." she trailed off, her eyes falling to Éomer's hand on her arm. He gently let it go. She looked up at him gratefully. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't take my feelings out on you. I just need some space."
He nodded and stepped away. "I understand."
Cristiel pulled her cloak tightly around her arms and watched for a moment as he went up the hill towards Meduseld. A knot formed in her throat as she wondered if Haldir had made it safely towards Lorien. She shivered and noticed how the sun was beginning to hide behind the mountains in the west. The warmth of the Hall was calling.
Cristiel tried to occupy the remainder of her evening through conversation with Éowyn. However, the latter was only intent on discussing who she might one day marry and Cristiel was in no mood to discuss that, especially when Éowyn's gaze kept floating towards Aragorn. Cristiel finally excused herself during a long pause when she could take it no more, and without acknowledging anyone, returned to the privacy of her quarters. Not even bothering to let her hair out of its braids, she collapsed onto the soft down bed and shadows overtook her sleep.
The sky was dark, covered in a thick gloom not even the mid-day sun could pierce. The stench of blood and mangled flesh filled the heavy air. In the open field, men cried for mercy from forces too shadowy to distinguish. Beasts screamed overhead, their wings thumping like a cold heart inside a hollow chest.
Standing amidst the carnage, she was alone. She stared past it all, past the battle that raged around her, past the stench that made her stomach roil. Agonizing screams of pain melted away into the background until they were nothing but a muffled haze surrounding her. Her eyes were fixed upon something beyond the mountains. A black tower. It loomed over her menacingly, seeming to grow, as if she was flying towards it. She could not stop.
The eye appeared suddenly, flaming brilliant orange and crimson, divided in half by a slender black iris, unblinking forever. He was searching desperately for something, something that He knew would threaten him as long as it existed. He raised his stare to her and she froze, as if she were carved in cold stone. Suddenly, white hot flame spewed threateningly from the abyss of the eye's iris. The sun disappeared into a black mist, leaving the void between her and Him in darkness.
There was nothing; only the heir; and Him. The silence was forever.
Then He spoke, a great and horrible roar. Her scream was sucked from her throat. The ground gave way beneath her, and she fell into the darkness.
Cristiel lurched up in bed with a gasp. Her heart thudded against her ribcage and her fingers gripped the sheets. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, shutting her eyes in exhaustion. Shaking involuntarily, she untangled herself from the covers, wiping sweat from her face. She swung her legs towards the floor, but when she tried to stand she trembled and collapsed back onto the bed. Her stomach turned as she recalled the images that had jerked her from sleep. She wanted to throw up and forget about them. They had been so real.
She sat up again, the sick feeling disappearing as her bare feet touched the cold stone floor. She pulled her cloak from the bedpost and wrapped it tightly around her, hiding her shaking hands within its warm folds. She knew they weren't shaking because of the cold.
She carefully made her way through the darkness of her room and came out into the empty hall. The space was dimly lit by a small fire that still burned in the hearth at the center of the room. She crossed the hall and went out onto the terrace that surrounded the building. She cringed when the door creaked as it shut behind her. A dark figure standing only a few paces away turned, and she could barely make out his weathered features in the moonlight.
"Ada," she mumbled.
She felt his strong hands on her shoulders and fought to keep herself together. He must have felt how tense she was.
"It's late, Cristiel. What troubles you?" His voice was so soft, comforting like she'd never heard it before.
"I couldn't sleep. It's nothing." She gritted her teeth at the lie.
"You are shaking."
Her breathing wavered and she brushed away the wetness from her eyes. "It was a dream. Nothing more."
She knew his brow was knit by now, and his gaze softer and concerned, even though she could barely see the outline of his face and the glimmer of the moon in his eyes.
"Dreams can be powerful things, daughter. Tell me what you saw."
So she did. At least she tried to. She barely made it past the part about the battle, and when her thoughts fell on the eye, she could speak no more. She leaned into his shoulder, silent tears pouring down her cheeks. She'd never been so scared in all her life, and she told him. He whispered a few words of comfort, but nothing could make the horrible dread sinking into the pit of her stomach go away.
She clung to him for what seemed like hours, but when she looked up, the sky was just as dark as it'd been when she'd first awoken. She sniffed as Aragorn wiped her cheeks of tears.
"I'm such a mess," she muttered. "You don't have to do this, ada. Don't treat me like—"
"You're my daughter and I love you. It doesn't matter whether you're two or twenty or sixty."
She managed a small smile, pulling her cloak around her as a cold gust blew in from the mountains. "I should probably try to get a little more sleep."
Aragorn nodded. "Sleep peacefully."
She reached down to squeeze his hand, then slipped away into the shadows. She fell into bed, and when she woke seemingly minutes later, the sun streamed through the nearby window, and a great horn could be heard. Following the horn, a voice cried, "Muster the Rohirrim!"
Cristiel leaped out of bed and charged out into the hall of Meduseld. She knew what she had to do.