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How could he say her no?

How could he deny her, she whom he had loved since first she smiled at him, her small wet fingers clinging triumphantly at his knees? Bold already, and strong, her small teeth bright as snow on autumn leaves.

How could he refuse, when he had seen her eyes shining in the firelight, her back straight and proud even when the songs went on into the night? Her dreams had kept her awake and listening, a small figure still on watch for glory while the other children slumped into tangled piles and slept among the rushes.

How could he tell her she could not, when it was he who had guided her first steps in the sword dance, and called the cadence as she patiently attacked the practice worn pells? For the first month alone, the boys had outpaced her, until her small arms hardened and her shoulders broadened under the weight of mail.

How could he order her back, when he had watched her stand aside and wither for lack of light? Her golden hair had dimmed in the shadows, and her face had gone cold and still despite the fire piled high for an invalid King, her duty wasting her strength on a battle she had not been taught to fight.

How could he claim she was unneeded, when every spear might mean the difference between dawn and endless darkness? There were others, women and old men, who could order a siege, and lead the straggling survivors into the dark of mountains and forests in hopes of a few years of maimed life, but so few who had survived the battle at Helm’s Deep with the strength to ride anew.

How could he reject her sacrifice, and ask some younger than she to follow the road to the end of despair? It was impossible. No matter what greater lords than he had said, or done. They did not love her as he did, and never could.

The breath of the mountain was cold. She waited for his answer, still as the pukelman that shadowed her, and it was he who shivered for the sake of her despair. She was so young! But the frost was on her now, and to warm her was to make her shatter, like a cold pot set too near the hearth in winter. She was waiting.

He could not say her no.

“Yes,” he said, and took her hand and kissed it, for he would never have the chance again. “Yes, Éowyn. You may ride with us.”