Two years later…
Elfwine, Crown Prince of the Mark, apple of the eye of the female population of Meduseld and his father's pride and joy, was covered in mud. Éomer beamed down at his son and heir.
His son and heir steadied himself by holding onto his father's leg. "Up!" he said imperiously. It had lately become his favourite word.
Obeying orders, Éomer swung his son up onto his shoulders and knowing what would be demanded next, he began prancing about like a stallion on the small lawn in front of the hunting lodge. The boy squealed with delight as he was bounced up and down.
"Éomer!" came his wife's voice. "Remember, not too much excitement before bedtime." She appeared on the veranda of the lodge, her strict words belied by the smile on her face.
"But I like excitement before bedtime," he shot back.
She wagged her finger at him. "One of these days Elfwine will repeat one of your jokes and embarrass us all in front of the whole hall."
"Perhaps. But not tonight. Tonight we're all alone." And a wonderful feeling that was.
Lothíriel seemed to share his thoughts, for she bestowed a happy smile on her husband and son. "Elfwine's bath is ready."
And such moments were precious, he mused while he swung the boy down again and helped divest him of his dirty hose and shirt. They managed too rarely to get away from Edoras and come up here to their hunting lodge in the hills. For most of the summer they had been away on a visit to Gondor, and though Éomer had enjoyed seeing his sister and showing off his family, he had missed time alone with just Lothíriel and Elfwine. In another month, this high up the leaves would begin to turn yellow and once the sun had set it would get chilly.
However, at the moment the air still held the afternoon's warmth and Elfwine did not complain when they sat him in the small wooden basin that served as a washtub. From experience Lothíriel had placed it at the edge of the veranda – they had only made the mistake of bathing him inside once and paid for it by having to mop up the whole floor afterwards.
Out here Elfwine could splash as much as he wanted and he grinned up enthusiastically at his parents every time a wave of water sloshed over the side. Éomer joined in by imitating a sea monster that had a liking for little children's toes, which led to a lot of wriggling and shrieking, while Lothíriel laughed, but insisted on the application of soap. As a result the boy's hair slowly turned from mud brown speckled with green grass back to its natural dark blond colour. Éomer watched with pride, for he considered his offspring quite the most handsome toddler in Edoras, though admittedly he might be biased. The rest of Edoras seemed to agree anyway, doting on Rohan's heir to a degree that if Elfwine hadn't been such an independent child, he would have been carried everywhere and spoilt rotten.
When the water was nearly gone, Lothíriel fetched a dry towel and bundled up their son in it. "Time to come inside, sweeting."
Elfwine grumbled a bit, but when she lifted him up, he slipped chubby arms around her neck and hugged her. The rays of the setting sun limned them in gold, two heads close together, one black haired, the other blond and Éomer felt his heart contract in his chest. They were so precious that sometimes it hurt. He knew that for better or for worse all his life's happiness was bound up in these two. If anything should happen to one of them…
"Éomer?" his wife asked and took a step towards him. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." He gathered his family in an embrace. "Yes, I am." And seeing Lothíriel with her face lifted up to him so invitingly, he could not resist claiming her lips in a kiss. Desire stirred within him at the touch of her soft skin.
Their son however got bored that moment and started to wriggle. "Down! Walk!" he commanded.
They broke apart reluctantly. "Not too much excitement before bedtime," Lothíriel murmured with a mischievous smile.
He groaned. "Cruel woman!"
She set Elfwine down and the boy toddled ahead of them into the hut and straight to the table, where Lothíriel had already laid out bread and cheese for their evening meal. His mother managed to catch him and persuade him to put on his nightshirt, but then he clambered onto the bench and sat chewing a piece of bread while Lothíriel filled three bowls with beef stew from the kettle on the hearth and Éomer lit the lamps and poured the ale.
Simple fare, but he would not have exchanged it for a feast in Meduseld, he thought as they settled down round the table, Elfwine between them. Although to be honest his wife had put considerable effort into making the lodge more comfortable than it used to be. Of course it was small and consisted only of two rooms, but the larder was overflowing and the beds had new mattresses and sheets.
To the secret relief of Meduseld's servants, she had relaxed somewhat in her campaign to bring the running of the hall to perfection – Éomer was pretty sure he had spotted cobwebs in the rafters the other day – but she still knew how to add those little touches that spoke of her, the vase with wildflowers on the table or the brightly coloured cushions scattered across the bench.
While they ate, they discussed their plans for the next day. Elfwine loved the pool in the clearing and never tired of trying to catch frogs, so it was decided to pack a basket of food and head down there for an outing. Éomer couldn't help thinking that such strenuous activity was bound to wear Elfwine out and the boy would surely succumb to a midday nap. Which might leave his parents free to indulge in some strenuous activity of their own? They would be quite private, for anxious for the royal family Éothain always posted a couple of guards at the beginning of the trail.
His pleasant musings were interrupted by Lothíriel gathering up their son. Elfwine had slumped against her, his eyes already half closed, and he only roused enough to give his father a big, moist good-night kiss before snuggling up to his mother. While Lothíriel went in the other room to put Elfwine to bed in his cot there, Éomer cleared the table and rinsed the dishes, then he went to check one last time on the horses.
Firefoot and Maeweth shared a small paddock round the back and ambled over for a caress when they spotted him. The sun had set while they had their meal and the stallion seemed luminous in the dusk while by contrast the mare melted into the shadows, as dark and elegant as her mistress. He pulled up some grass to feed them, which they accepted greedily in Firefoot's case and with graceful restraint on Maeweth's part. When the stallion got too bold though, she laid her ears back with a threatening whinny and Firefoot hastily backed away.
Éomer grinned. "You'd better not push your luck, old friend," he said. "Not with this one."
After patting them a last time, he continued on his tour around the hut, checking that all was well. In the east the first stars blossomed and on the still air the sound of his wife singing a lullaby drifted out of the open window, filling him with deep contentment. After Théoden's death he had built walls around his heart as high and impregnable as those of the Hornburg, but somehow she had overcome them effortlessly – to his luck. He had been truly blessed! Not for the first time he thanked the Valar for giving him not what he had asked for, but what he needed.
It was their custom to talk or play a game on the veranda in the evening, and when he saw that Lothíriel had already put out his set of boars and hounds, he fetched the bearskin they used for sitting on and the cushions from the kitchen. They could have carried out the chairs of course, but Lothíriel liked to sit with her legs dangling over the edge of the veranda and claimed it was much more comfortable that way.
A little while later he heard her move about inside and then Lothíriel came out to join him. To his surprise she had wrapped his travelling cloak around her so it covered her completely.
"Are you feeling all right?" he asked. It had been one of those late, warm summer days and the evening air was still balmy, surely she couldn't be cold?
"Perfectly fine," she assured him and sat down opposite him. Her clever fingers darted out from the cover of the cloak to set up the game pieces. "My turn for starting with the hounds, I believe." She threw a laughing challenge at him through long dark lashes. "So what do we play for this time, my lord husband?"
She was quite irresistible. "The winner gets to take the loser to bed," he decreed.
"Hmm." She pretended to consider his words for a moment. "But what if the winner prefers to read one of her books instead?"
Her books? She was very sure of herself! But with a certain justification, Éomer had to admit ruefully. Ever since she had discovered how easily she could distract him at crucial moments, his victories had become few and far between, which seemed to provide her with no end of amusement.
"Sorry, but the rules are very clear on the stakes," he replied. "Unfortunately there is no mention of books in them."
"Only of beds?" she shot back dryly.
"I'm afraid so."
"The rules seem remarkably fluid," she remarked. "Every time we play they change."
"I am the king of this land," he pointed out. "Making the rules is my prerogative. It's the reward for all my hard work."
"Well, I wouldn't want my poor husband to go unrewarded," she said, "so the stakes are acceptable to me."
He stared at her, for he did not trust her in such a meek mood, but then decided he would show her that he would not fall for her tricks again. No, not tonight! Since he had the boars, the first move was his and he opened the game by jumping one of his pieces forward. That moment, as if by chance, his wife stretched out one of her legs from under the cover of his cloak. "Oh, have I shown you yet what Elphir's wife sent me from Dol Amroth? It's the latest fashion, imported from Harad."
In disbelief Éomer stared down at a slim leg clad in trousers made from some kind of shimmering, transparent red silk. He was speechless. She still refused to wear trousers for riding and now this? He would never be able to concentrate! Which was of course exactly her intention, he realised. "You devious little..."
"Do you like them?" she asked, all innocence. "But I think it's my turn now, isn't it?" She leant forward to move one of her hounds and allowed the cloak to slip from her shoulders, giving him a glimpse of an equally gauzy top.
He had a better chance of defeating a nazgûl with a spoon than of winning this game! But what had that Gondorian king that Aragorn always liked to quote once said? When faced with certain defeat, throw your enemy into disarray by doing the unexpected.
Slowly he reached out and pushed his king boar over. "I yield."
Startled, she looked up at him. "Oh! That's…that's…" But quickly she regained her self-possession and crossed her arms on her chest. "And now I suppose I have to take you to bed."
He grinned, for unnoticed by her the cloak had slid down altogether. "I cannot help it, it's the rules." This had to be the only time he had ever won by complete surrender!
"I see that I have married a master strategist." Suddenly a wicked smile spread across her face. "Very well, I accept your capitulation."
Éomer chuckled and reached out to give her a kiss, but she wriggled away. "Not so fast! I'm taking you to bed, not the other way round." She considered him for a moment and he got a sinking feeling in his stomach at the mirth in her eyes. "Take off your shirt," she said.
"Rules, my dear lord and husband," she drawled. "Laid down by the King of the Mark himself, so they have to be obeyed."
Oh, that was the way the wind was blowing? Still, as long as they ended up where he wanted to, he did not mind.
He took off his shirt.
Lothíriel leant forward and trailed her fingers up his chest and along his collar bone, slowly and tantalisingly, and it took all his self-control not to simply grab her. He narrowed his eyes at her and in response she raised a haughty eyebrow. But though she kept her face impassive, he felt her fingers tremble just a little.
He got up and slipped out of his trousers, then stood there with his hands on his hips looking down at her. Leisurely she let her eyes wander over his naked form. His wife had better watch it or he would not guarantee his actions!
As if she could read his thoughts, her lips curved in a smile. "Kiss me," she breathed.
With a growl he pounced on her and complied. "And about time!" he said when they had to pause to catch their breath. He pulled her on top of him, then in a swift motion rolled them over and pinned her against the ground. "You, my wife and queen, need to learn to play fair! Let me tell you that the means by which you win are more than dubious." His hands strayed inside her silken top. "So tell me, are you enjoying your victory?"
Not the least impressed by his disapproving tone, she grinned up at him, her hair spread in wild disarray about her. "It's sweet," she conceded and slid her hands along his bare sides. "And how do you find surrender?"
Éomer groaned at her teasing, skilful touch. Then he decided to get even and began to trail a line of kisses down her neck and into the hollow of her throat, dropping each one as slowly and lightly as a falling snowflake. Her hands on him tightened and he felt her tremble. He moved up again and paused a finger's breadth above her lips, not quite touching them. Her eyes half closed, she gasped involuntarily.
"Surrender is sweet too," he whispered in her ear.
At that her eyes fluttered open and she gifted him with a wry smile. "Oh, I know. I yielded long ago."
A/N: As always, I owe many thanks to my wonderful beta, Lady Bluejay, and the ladies at the Garden for their suggestions and comments. Also many thanks to you, my readers, for coming with me on this ride. I really appreciate the warm welcome back after my absence of some years and the feedback I've received on this story. Hopefully it won't be quite so long again until my next fanfic!
And if you want to read more of my writing, there are other Éomer & Lothíriel stories of mine on this site, or you can find my original stories on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Scribd, etc. by searching for 'Lia Patterson':
Wind Weaver (out in June 2022)
Daughter of Wolves (free on iBooks, Kobo, Nook and Smashwords)
Bride to the Sun