How we think the fight will go
Eowyn awoke to find herself in an unfamiliar country. The land around her was flat and barren, save for some small and ragged thorn bushes. It was terribly hot, and the air itself smelled acrid, unnatural. It was a far cry from the sweet fragrance of meadows and the rugged mountains of her land.
She stood, and found she was dressed for battle. Her helmet lay in the dust at her feet. Her faithful horse Windfola pawed the earth nervously nearby.
What manner of sorcery is this? she wondered, and wished that Gandalf or her Uncle Théoden were with her, perhaps they might know what fell place this was.
At the thought of her uncle she grew uneasy, wondering if Grima Wormtongue had somehow conspired to bring her to this desert, the better to poison her uncle and work his malice.
She placed the helm on her head and mounted Windfola in a single, fluid motion. Her father had told that, if lost, she should follow a river downstream. If there were no river, head south. She prayed the harsh sun overhead was her own, and headed south, hoping she might return to Rohan before too much damage was done.
Beorn woke, sharp stones digging in his back, a hot sun burning his skin. He sat up, and saw nothing familiar. There were no forests, meadows or streams, only dirt and mean, spiny shrubs.
This was wizard’s work! Beorn scowled and a low growl sounded in his throat.
Go south, your enemy is there
The voice was in his head and he chose to ignore it. He was no puppet for witch-men!
Go south, your enemy is there
This time the command was followed by a harsh shrieking sound in his head, and he felt his skull might actually burst from the pain. He moved south and it lessened, then stopped when he traveled in earnest.
Someone would pay, their neck broken by Beorn the man or their head removed by Beorn the bear.
After two hours Eowyn saw low, chalk-white hills in the distance. She halted and took a small sip of water from the skin on her saddle. Whoever had abducted her had not wanted her to perish from hunger and thirst. There were a good two day’s rations in her saddlebag.
She saw no sign of a settlement, but the hills were certainly a landmark. They would figure prominently in any map of the area. Perhaps there would be an inn or outpost nearby.
She patted Windfola and they moved on, the horse’s great hooves kicking up clouds of dust that soon became white rather than gray-brown.
She wondered if these hills were composed of crushed seashells, a wonder she had heard about from one of the travelers to Théoden’s Hall.
Her answer came when she saw the rib cage of a great beast, the bones ancient and bleached. Near it was the skull of what might have been a man, though it was far too large and only had an orbit for one eye.
The hills were, in fact, huge piles of bone, the skeletons of beasts and men both known and unknown, their splintered and desiccated remains being slowly ground to dust under the harsh and relentless sun.
How many ages had come and gone as these great heaps of skull and bone had grown from mere middens to actual hills? Were the bones of her ancestors here? Were her own bones here, and she a wandering wraith, with no more substance than morning fog over the lowlands in her beloved country?
It was foolish to speculate, and silly to think she might be some specter. She was the daughter of Éomund and Theodwyn, and she was alive and needed at her uncle’s side. She spurred her mount on. Though Windfola was clearly afraid of this strange realm, she obeyed her mistress and went forth.
Eowyn found a path through the hills of bone. Riding through, she couldn’t help but wonder how these skeletons had come here, to grace and perhaps enrich this barren land. It was a mystery, like the giant statues of ancient kings that towered over the mountains themselves.
On the far side of the piles of bone she found a great arena, capable of holding many hundreds of spectators in its seats of carved stone. Such a place was also to be found in Meduseld, where the greatest of the Eorlingas would compete in games and tournaments. The greatest rider – usually her brother Eomer – would be given a ceremonial helm and saddle modeled after those of Eorl the Young himself.
There was no way around the arena; it was surrounded by the last of the hills of bone. She moved forward, and saw a tall and muscular man standing on the far side, blocking the path out of the arena. His hair was dark and unkempt, and he was stripped to the waist. Beyond him, she could see the beginning of green fields and – by the gods! – a river.
Eowyn rode forward until she was some fifty feet from the man. She raised her hand in greeting.
Beorn had seen the woman approaching for almost a league. He recognized her raiment and bearing as a Rider of Rohan, a people he had heard of but never met. He knew they valued their horses as much as their children, and this made them wise in his estimation.
He meant to return her greeting, ask if she knew a way out of this wretched place, but the voice in his head returned.
This he would not do, even if it cost him his life. He was not a killer of men and had no desire to start with the daughter of a king.
The shrieking from before now rose to a shrill scream, and he felt as if his body was being torn apart by red-hot tongs.
He rushed toward her, hoping to tell her to run.
Eowyn saw the man rushing toward her, his movements clumsy like a drunkard.
He roared, more out misery than anger, it seemed to her, and came on.
He, too, is bewitched, she thought.
She had no wish to harm him, for he was probably as much a victim as she. A light press from her right knee and Windfola wheeled to the left, evading the charging man easily.
Beorn stumbled past her and fell to the ground, panting. He felt his gorge rise and swallowed hard, damned if he would lose his breakfast in this miserable place.
The voice in his head returned, and now it was her voice.
How easily I beat you, fool bear-man!
This enchantment – she was behind it?
Of course – you really are stupid, aren’t you?
Part of him tried to dismiss it, because he realized such trickery was more the way of wizards and elves than men.
But the rest of him was in pain, and angry at being dismissed as slow and ignorant.
He stood, and the pain in his head lessened.
He charged, and this time his course was straight, his speed frightening.
Eowyn wheeled Windfola the other way, just as the man leaped.
And then, like something out of a nightmare, he changed.
In a moment his features coarsened and became brutish, and his body grew large and covered with dense fur.
She hesitated for a split second, her mind trying to reconcile the great bear coming toward her where there had been a man before.
One great paw caught her shoulder, the claws raking down the fine metal of her breastplate. The blow knocked her off Windfola and she landed in the dirt of the arena.
She blew a shrill whistle and Windfola retreated. Had she not given the command, the horse would have stayed by her, and been easy prey for the giant bear.
Eowyn leaped to her feet, her shoulder aching. There were great scratches down her breastplate. Had she not been armored, she would have been bleeding to death, her guts spilled into the dust and grit at her knees.
She drew her sword, and said a little chant the Swordmaster of Rohan had taught her:
I draw my blade, see it shine
I wield it true, your blood is mine
It was a child’s rhyme, meant to instill courage. Now, some twenty years later she still said it, not that she had ever had occasion to go into battle.
Her reverie was interrupted by another charge from the giant bear. It rose up, standing at least thirty hands high. She swung her sword, leading with the flat of the blade rather than the edge, hoping to daze it. Shapeshifter or not, she still had a strong feeling he was also a victim in this.
The bear changed, assuming more mannish proportions as the blade passed and missed, the momentum of the errant swipe carrying her off-balance.
A large but human foot kicked her in the ribs and she went down, the sword skittering away in the dirt.
The man became a bear again and reared up.
By now, Beorn’s mind was a red haze, the killing fever deep on both his human and animal forms. It was if he was fighting wargs and orcs instead of a mere girl.
Eowyn saw the bear begin to drop and rolled to the left. He roared, hot saliva spraying her face, and the tips of his claws caught her thigh, shredding her thick leather skirt and jodhpurs beneath. She felt the razor tips slice into her flesh and bit back a scream.
Eowyn rose, feinted to her right and then ran left, trying to get to her sword.
The bear moved surprisingly fast and cut her off, roaring in defiance, all hint of humanity gone.
If she could get up into the seats…
But that would leave Windfola down here with the creature, and she had no doubt he would kill her mount.
She stood her ground, waiting the bear out, feverishly thinking of what other weapons she might possess.
She did carry a small bow and quiver; she had taken to hunting small game to supplement the meager rations Wormtongue was giving her uncle. She wasn’t the best shot, and she’d need to pierce this beast’s heart or eye to best it.
She thought of something, something down in her saddlebag that she had secured to help her uncle against Grima Wormtongue. It was risky, but it was all she had.
She again feinted to the left and then quickly stooped and came up with two handfuls of dust. She threw them in the bear’s face and dropped to the ground.
The blinded bear roared in anger and swiped at the air where she had been just a moment before. Surely such a blow would have cut her in half!
Eowyn scrambled to her feet and ran, her thigh on fire from the lacerations, her shoulder aching and going stiff.
She ran, whistling for Windfola who came running. As the horse reached her Eowyn leapt, vaulting over the horse’s head and landing backwards on her saddle. She goaded the horse to maintain a gallop, trusting its quick reflexes to keep them out of the way of the charging bear.
She recovered her bow and arrows, and a pouch of white powder. She wet an arrowhead with her tongue, and dipped it in the pouch, just as the horse turned sharply as the bear charged them.
Eowyn kept hold of the arrow, but the pouch fell to the earth and was ground into the dust by the roaring bear.
One shot – if she failed, they were finished.
Eowyn nocked the arrow and stood in the saddle. It was a stance she had practiced all her life. She was a daughter of Rohan, and she could ride before she could walk.
By the gods, by Eorl the Young, may my aim be true.
The bear, no longer blind, came straight at them.
Eowyn let loose the bolt, and the arrow flew straight and true, into the shoulder of the monstrous bear.
She dropped to the saddle and spurred her horse on, and they leaped over the bear, it snapped at Windfola’s belly but missed.
Had she been in Rohan, that stunt would have won her the coveted helm and saddle.
They turned back, and watched the bear.
It stood shakily and then dropped to wobbling legs. It grunted and groaned, then dropped to the earth and was still.
By the time they reached it, the bear had become a man, and was snoring.
“Sleep well, friend – that powder is the only thing that keeps my uncle from nights of nightmares and sleeplessness.”
Then, as Beorn slept, Eowyn of Rohan continued on, searching for home.
Predicted Winner: Eowyn
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Monday, March 24, 2014, AT 12:00 PM, EST
Editor’s Note: Mark Onspaugh is a California native and the author of more than forty published short stories. Like many writers, he is perpetually curious, having studied psychology at UCLA, exotic animals at Moorpark College’s exotic animal training & management program, improv comedy with the Groundlings, and special-effects makeup. Mark has also written for film and television. He currently lives in Cambria, California, with his wife and three peculiar cats. The Faceless One is his first novel.
Cage Match fans: We are looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”