Not the usual stakes
It was a dark yellow, the colour of mustard, and it was oozing out everywhere. Éomer tried to suppress the panic rising within him. He could handle this. Surely it was not as bad as battling Uruk-hai. One step at a time, he told himself, take one step at a time. The yellow stuff was by now running through his fingers and starting to slowly trickle down his arms. Éomer let go for a moment, and grabbed one of the cloths from the pile to his right to wipe his hands. Letting it drop to the floor, he turned back to the task at hand.
His son and heir was looking up at him, giving his father a happy, toothless smile, and wriggling his legs experimentally. More yellow stuff slowly oozed out the side of his nappy. He was looking distinctly proud of himself.
"Very well, son," Éomer said, gritting his teeth and steeling himself for the worst, "the first step is to remove your nappy."
He took a deep breath, which was a mistake, as he realized rather too late. Turning his head away slightly, he started to pull at the knot. The ribbon tying the linen nappy in place was covered in the stuff and so slippery, it made the knot intractable. Éomer swore under his breath and cursed his stupid male pride. Why was he doing this, when he could be outside doing something else? Something like - riding across the plains of the Riddermark, fighting orcs, or even sitting in his council chamber listening to his advisers droning on endlessly about some small problem or other.
When the knot just wouldn't yield, he looked round for something to cut it with. Surely the ribbons could be sewn back on, once the nappy had been washed, but that would no longer be his problem. His problem was that there was nothing within reach to cut them with. There was a small knife on the table across the room, but he'd had to promise on his honour not to leave their son alone up on the chest of drawers his wife used for changing, in case the baby managed to turn over and topple to the floor. Briefly he contemplated carrying the whole bundle over to the table, but a mental vision of leaving a yellow trail behind himself dissuaded him from that idea.
Still looking frantically around for something to cut those ribbons, his glance fell on his sword lying on the big bed in the middle of the room. He hesitated. Then he reached out and hooked his foot around the baldric, pulling it towards him. Gúthwinë clattered a protest as it fell to the floor, but he ignored it. Desperate situations called for desperate means. At least his battle friend was as sharp as ever, and the knot yielded to it without any problems.
He smiled down at his son. "See," he said, "we'll show mummy how well we can cope, won't we."
Éomer was just congratulating himself on his ingenuity, when he noticed that he'd gotten some of the yellow stuff on the pommel, and he could not help cursing. Reaching for another cloth sent the whole pile to the floor, causing him to curse some more. With a sigh, he put the sword on the chest of drawers and bent to pick up the cloths.
When he straightened up again, his son and heir had turned over onto his front and was reaching for the naked blade, which glinted so tantalizingly close to him. With a breathless oath Éomer snatched it away from those small, clutching fingers, his heart hammering wildly. Then he groaned. The nappy had come loose and it was simply everywhere. A big blob had just landed on his boots.
A lesser man would have given up the unequal fight at this point, but he was Éomer Éomundsson, King of the Mark, the youngest man ever to be given the title of Marshall of the Riddermark, and a survivor of the Ring War. The man people were starting to call the Lion of Rohan.
Grimly he undid the nappy all the rest of the way, and simply grabbed it and dumped it in the tin bucket placed for that purpose to his left. Then he took fresh towels, and cleaned up as much of the mess as he could manage, probably using up a week's supply of cloths, but not much caring about it. Finally he proudly surveyed his son lying on an almost clean cloth, ready to be wrapped in a fresh nappy. This he had been shown how to do repeatedly, and it wasn't too difficult, even if the end product did not look quite the same as when his wife or her ladies did it. Still, all it had to do was to hold until the evening, after which time it would no longer be his problem.
With a sigh of relief he placed Elfwine in the middle of the bed before getting rid of the evidence of his labours. His son babbled something and tried to fit his big toe in his mouth. Éomer smiled down on him. He was such a happy baby, there hadn't been one sound of complaint out of him. He wondered if his wife's ladies were hovering outside the royal apartments, ready to rush in at his call for help. Well, he wouldn't give Lothíriel the satisfaction. He had said he could manage, so manage he would.
The first priority was to open all the windows. It was a warm afternoon in late spring, so the baby would take no harm from wearing nothing but his nappy. Éomer decided that for once his son could do without any clothes. As he saw it, he had already gone far beyond the call of duty.
When he had picked up all the stained towels and placed them in one big heap next to the door to the bathroom, he turned back to the bed. Elfwine was still lying on his back, wriggling his arms and feet about and talking happily to himself. For a moment Éomer just stood there, watching him fondly and enjoying the sensation of a difficult undertaking brought to a successful end.
"I told you we would manage, didn't I?" he said and smiled down at his son. "And without any help, just as agreed."
At that moment the Crown Prince of the Riddermark stopped wriggling and curled his little hands into fists. Then he screwed up his face in concentration and turned a deep shade of red. There was a strange liquid sound and under Éomer's horrified eyes more of the yellow stuff started to leak out everywhere. Literally everywhere: it oozed across Elfwine's stubby thighs, out the front and over the top of the nappy, staining the bed covers deep mustard yellow.
Involuntarily, Éomer took a step back. This just couldn't be happening to him!
"Don't do that to your father!" he breathed in horror. "Couldn't you wait for the evening?"
His son only responded by giving him a guileless smile, and experimentally reached out to touch the product of his labours and spread it about some more.
"No, don't do that!" Éomer exclaimed and snatched Elfwine up.
His shirt was past saving anyway, so he cradled his son against his chest while he wondered frantically what to do next. A quick look around showed him that there were no clean cloths left, all of them having been used up already.
As he saw it, there was only one course left open to him now. It was all or nothing. He opened the door to call out to the servants.
It was unnervingly quiet. The Queen of Rohan stopped outside the door to the royal apartments and nodded to the guard stationed there.
"Everything all right, Ceorl?" she asked, striving for a nonchalant tone.
The guard nodded back respectfully. "No problems at all, my lady." Was it her imagination or was he suppressing a smile?
"Where is the king?" Lothíriel asked.
"Éomer King is within, and so is Prince Elfwine."
The guard opened the door for her and she nodded her thanks and would have gone in, when she was struck by a sudden thought. "Oh, Ceorl," she said, "would you please tell the servants to ready Prince Elfwine's evening bath?"
"Éomer King has already given the prince his bath."
"Oh!" Lothíriel stared at the guard for a moment. That was an unexpected development. "Very well," she said and went into her chambers.
The bedroom was filled with the light of the late afternoon sun, and through the open window she could hear the lazy sound of bees buzzing about and the faint voices of riders exercising their warhorses.
The King of Rohan and his heir were lying on the bed. Elfwine's dark blond hair was damp and stuck to his forehead, and he was curled up tightly in the crook of his father's arm. They were both fast asleep.
When Lothíriel sat down on the side of the bed, Éomer opened his eyes, wide-awake and completely alert in an instant, as usual. At least he didn't try to jump her, as he might have done in the same situation some years ago. Marriage had mellowed him that far.
She gave him a tentative smile. "Did everything go all right?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Yes, of course. So did you enjoy your afternoon?"
She nodded and took a surreptitious glance around the room. Everything was tidy and seemed to be in order. There was no mess anywhere, the only thing she noticed was that the coverlet of the bed seemed to be missing. Had the servants removed it and forgotten to put a new one on? Not that it really mattered, anyway.
Lothíriel had in fact enjoyed taking her mare Nightwind for a short ride up to the hills behind Edoras, and just sitting in the sun and doing nothing for a whole afternoon. There had been a couple of guards along of course, but they had been so discreet that she had almost felt she was completely on her own. It had been a strange feeling, though, not to have her little son near her, ready to make demands on her time and wanting to be carried around or amused. With a shock she had realized that this was the first time since he had been born five months ago, that she had been further away from him than a couple of rooms.
Elfwine yawned and stretched his little arms. At once she bent to pick him up, as always enjoying his familiar weight in her arms and marvelling at the perfection of his tiny hands and feet. She had missed him. He smiled up at her sleepily, his delicious baby scent overlaid with that of soap.
"You've given him his bath already?" she asked.
Éomer nodded. "I thought he might enjoy having a bath with his father and anyway, it's one less chore for you to do."
Lothíriel smiled her thanks. She did not consider anything involving her son a chore, but it was thoughtful of Éomer. In fact she was surprised that he had managed so well. All afternoon she had half expected to see a rider coming after her, asking her to return as quickly as possible. Quite obviously she had underestimated her husband's resourcefulness.
In her arms Elfwine stirred and made his wishes known.
"Hungry?" she asked him with a smile and then moved over to the comfortable chair by the window.
When she had undone the laces of her blouse and settled her son against her breast, she looked up to see Éomer watching her through half-closed eyes. He had lain down on the bed again and looked tired but relaxed.
They exchanged a grin as the sound of their son's unabashed feeding filled the room, and Lothíriel gave a contented sigh. It was one of those moments when she wished she could stop time. Just the three of them, with no obligations to fulfil and no place they had to be.
Elfwine was an efficient feeder by now, and after a quick pause in the middle he had soon drunk his fill and fell asleep again. Lothíriel got up and laid him in his cot, which was standing by the bed. He had a happy smile on his face and a trickle of milk was running from one corner of his mouth. She reached out for a cloth to wipe it away, but found they were all gone, so she just left it.
Then she sat down on the edge of the bed, next to Éomer. "Well, husband of mine, so did you manage completely on your own?" she asked, and arched an eyebrow at him.
"The servants filled the bathtub for me," he answered, "but I thought I'd be allowed that much help by the terms of our bet."
Lothíriel inclined her head. "That seems fair," she conceded. "I'm sorry, I said you wouldn't be able to look after Elfwine on your own," she apologized, "quite obviously I was wrong."
"Well perhaps not completely wrong," her husband admitted, "I had a small spot of bother to begin with, but it all turned out well in the end."
There was a glint of laughter in his eyes, but before she could enquire any more deeply into this last statement he reached out a hand to cup one side of her face.
"And now, my lady," he said in a low voice, "I think you owe me a forfeit."
Lothíriel's pulse speeded up. "Really?" she replied, trying to keep her tone cool and composed. "I thought it was the usual stakes?"
Bets among the Rohirrim usually involved one or several tankards of ale, provided for by the looser. But it seemed that her husband had other ideas.
"I think not," Éomer whispered, sliding his other hand up one of her arms. He flashed her a grin when he felt her shivering involuntarily.
She was not completely defenceless, though. Very slowly, she reached out a hand and started to pull out the pins that fastened her hair in place. After the sixth or seventh the whole silky black mass came tumbling down over her shoulders and he caught his breath.
"You're doing that on purpose," he accused her.
"Doing what?" she asked innocently, and shook her head so her loose hair brushed across his fingers.
His eyes narrowed and then suddenly his hand snaked out, he grabbed her and rolled over on top of her, pinning her neatly beneath him in the process. She had seen it coming of course, but even so the suddenness of his move surprised her and she let out a startled squeal.
Guiltily they froze and looked towards their son's bed, but Elfwine just pulled a bit of a face in his sleep, gave a snort, and rolled over onto his other side.
Éomer turned his attention back towards her. "Now where were we, my lady?" he asked, firmly cradling her face between his arms.
She smiled up at him. "I think you were just claiming your due, my lord," she answered meekly.
Then she reached up and buried her hands in his thick mane of blond hair, pulling his face down towards hers for a deep and thorough kiss.
A good while later, the King of Rohan watched his wife get up and wrap a robe around herself. The light had weakened and soon it would be time to get dressed and join his men in the Great Hall for the evening meal, but this moment, balanced between the fading of the day and the coming of the night, still belonged to them. He savoured every last bit of it as he watched her move about the room, picking up their discarded clothes and then settling down on the edge of the bed again, combing out her lovely, long hair. This time his beautiful wife stayed well out of his reach, though, he thought with a grin.
She noticed his grin and put her head to one side. "Feeling satisfied with the outcome of your bet?" she asked.
Éomer did not fail to take note of the slight challenge in her tone. "Well, yes…" he replied cautiously.
She gave him a bright smile. "In that case you won't mind looking after Elfwine again tomorrow?"
"What?" he sat bolt upright, only to have his wife burst into helpless laughter.
"Oh, Éomer," she gasped. "The look on your face!"
He glared at her while she wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. "Don't worry," she said, "it was only a joke."
He continued glaring at her as she got up again and crossed the room to the door of the bathing room.
"Do you think you can manage to look after our son while I'm having a quick bath?" she teased him.
Éomer tensed. He had had to give up his unsuccessful attempt at washing the bed cover in the bathtub, when he had caught Elfwine trying to ingest his mother's favourite scented soap, imported at great cost from Dol Amroth. The fact that one of the used nappies had been swept down the drain and had blocked it, had not helped either. But surely by now the servants would have come and cleaned it all up, probably while he had been dead to the world, sleeping off his exhaustion.
He felt himself relaxing and took a look at Elfwine, still fast asleep in his cot. "Oh yes, I can manage that," he replied with a smile and stretched out on the bed again, "You go and enjoy your bath, ladylove."
His wife opened the door to the bathroom. There was silence for a moment at the sight greeting her eyes. Then she whirled around towards him.
"Éomer!" said the Queen of Rohan, her eyes flashing with wrath.
This is just a small oneshot following on from my other story Of Falcons and Mûmakil. However, I'm already working on my next project and am hoping to be able to publish the first chapter towards the end of September.
Many thanks to Lady Bluejay for checking this over for me!