Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The man stood in front of the door of a wooden house, an axe in his hands.
She stood in the grass, maybe thirty feet or so away, and tried to decide whether or not to pull her knife.
He was...tall. Seven feet, maybe eight, taller than anyone she had ever seen before. Thick black hair and a large black beard, and a huge, broad body, all muscle and knotted sinew, the legs dark tree trunks. Splinters and chips of wood were scattered in his hair, and his skin glistened with sweat from the chopping he had been doing. He wore a kind of folded loincloth and had boots on his feet, but was otherwise naked. She could see the shirt he had stripped off earlier, lying folded in the grass beside the door.
They stood, each as still as stone, in the low, golden light, and watched each other think of killing and not killing.
His eyes were a darkest, feral brown.
He made a noise, hmmm
, under his breath, in a voice that growled without baring teeth.
She backed away cautiously, watchful, her posture that of a waiting wolf.
The man opened his mouth, and he said a few words, in a tone that was almost impatient.
She could understand nothing.
When she only stared at him blankly, the man's brows came together. He glared at her, and spoke again, this time at length.
Nothing. She heard gibberish, and shook her head to show that she didn't understand. Hmmm,
She looked back the way she had come, back to the trees, wondering whether to disappear back into them, to take her chances.
When she turned back again, the giant had moved aside from the door.
He stood by the huge tree trunk he had been cutting, the head of the axe resting on the ground, his hands on the butt of the handle. His eyes were frank, and forthright—come in, if you want,
they seemed to say. Or go, as you like.
The ring lay still and quiet against her breast, and from those eyes she recognized the offer for what it was.
She slipped by him and to the door, keeping an eye on the man where he stood. He made no move to stop her or come after her, and when she'd gone inside, pausing by the door frame, she heard the bite of the axe again, the chop of splitting wood.
The hall she had come into was large, both wide and long, and in the middle was a fireplace where a wood-fire burned. On each side, there were raised platforms between hall pillars and the walls, and in one corner of the left platform there was bedding laid out, a pile of blankets. Smoke blackened the ceiling, seeping through an opening higher up through the rafters, and in the opposite wall there was another, smaller door, through which she could smell flowers and sunlight.
From beside a long table in front of the fire, a gray dog raised its head and woofed in her direction.
She limped down the hall, toward the bedding, and was unconscious before her body hit a mattress filled with straw.
At some point, she was, in some part of her sleeping mind, aware of the dog padding over and lying down beside her, laying his head in the small of her back. She was aware of the man coming in, later, using the shirt he'd taken off to wipe his face and neck, the axe nowhere to be seen, and she knew it when he stood by the fire, looking at her for several long moments with a glowering frown on his face. She knew it when he went away again, leaving the hall, and she knew it when the fire began to die down, darkening the room, but her body ached and was wrung out with exhaustion, and she couldn't bear to open her eyes or get up, not even when the ring grew hot and almost painful where it was pressing into her collarbone.
When she finally, finally woke, the sun had set, the hall was dark, and the dog was gone.
She lay still for a while, trying to get her bearings. Something smelled awful, and she was embarrassed to realize that it was her. Oh—the bedding would be dirty too, now. Bath,
she thought, but she still didn't get up.
Something pulsed against her neck. She took the ring in her hand, held it up to her face. The gleam of gold was warm and lovely in the dark, and she shivered though she wasn't cold, shivered as if someone had whispered into her ear.
“Ring,” she said, and, on impulse, slipped it onto her left ring finger.
And sighed, eyes half-closed—
, as voices on voices in voices crawled along her skin—clutching at her, dragging at her, pulling her down, down, down into the cold—
—and the beast that was her own self screamed through her blood, her body, a fire against a fire—
filled her flesh with a golden, living fire.
She stood in the door of the wooden house and looked on a world without life. The moon and the sun hung in the sky, a man pursuing a woman through the heavens, their eyes blinded, full of their own light. Below the earth slept dragons and beasts, and in the trees hung the contorted shapes of ghosts and men. She saw corruption as a black thing winging away into the distance, and she saw the light for what it was, a weak and aged thing, fading away into the west, and when she looked to the east, where darkness crept, swollen and malignant with all its years of fermented poison, she saw the colossus, the cyclopean eye that hung its shadow over the world, and she saw its fear as it threw its sight out into the world, desperate and searching and unable to see.
Unable to see, as the beast coiled around her heart opened its jagged mouth and swallowed whole a ring of fire.
The fire filled her body, her head, and she burned, screaming and screaming and screaming, until she had burned to nothing, and there was no pain.
From the trees, out of the dark, came a huge, black shape, crashing through the wood. A black bear, larger than could fit into the world, eyes red with madness, and it bellowed its rage, howled its pain, before, trembling, it came to lie quietly down at her charred and blackened feet.
She opened her eyes.
The hall was quiet. The fire had gone out, and pale light limned the edges of the two doors at each end of the room, the light of morning. All was gray and still.
Beside her sat the giant, in shirt and trews, smelling of the woods and fur and teeth.
His eyes, in the dark, gleamed yellow.
She sat up in the bedding.
He stared at her, through her. The muscles of his neck were tense and tight, strained almost to breaking. The knuckles of his hands were white as he gripped his knees, holding them as a man would hold his weapons in fear.
His face was flat and naked with anger.
“What have you done?” he said, and the growl was a rasp.
She said nothing.
He turned away, and his shoulders loosened, his head lowered. Something inexpressible passed through his body, a body that slanted, grudging, toward the floor, and in the shape of it she recognized something broken and defeated.
“I am Beorn,” he said, eyes on the cold, black fireplace, “and I was a free man.”
Looked at her, again, a look of hatred and loathing and lust and regret.
“Willow,” she said, and didn't know why.
His mouth formed the shape of it. Willow.
“Willow,” he said, and she felt the power of it, her power over him to make him speak her name, and his power when he named her.
“Look what you have done,” he whispered, and his voice was low and terrible with despair.
She went out behind the wooden house, and washed in a stream there, feeling his eyes on her naked back. She dressed in clothes Beorn gave her, clothes too large but well-made, shirt and trews of soft wool dyed green. She took the knife he gave her, larger and sharper than the one she'd had, the new belt and pouch, and a gray cloak. There were no boots, but he gave her furs with which to wrap her feet, soft and muting. She ate bread and honey and drank milk at the table while he took the old things to the fireplace and burned them, a small fire that he let die as soon as the task was done.
She watched him open the doors and the gates, and leave them open, though for who she could not see and he did not say.
When Willow left the house, her face turned east for the road but her eyes looking south, the ring gold and glimmering on her finger, Beorn came with her, the black-haired and -bearded giant, a war axe on his shoulder, in a coat of chain and a cloak of black fur.