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Halldis stared at the bear and started to tremble. Fear paralyzed her and she couldn't move. And even if she could, she was certain that the attempt to escape wouldn't last more than a few steps anyway; the bear would surely catch up with her in an instant.
The big animal stood at the rim of the hill and watched her.
"Don't attack me," Halldis half whispered and half snivelled.
The bear, some fifty feet away from her, slowly moved and made three steps towards her, and then stopped again, tilting his head aside as if scrutinizing her.
Halldis wondered if she could do anything if she had a weapon and knew how to wield it. But watching the huge muscular body of the bear, its long canines and claws, the answer to that question was perfectly clear to her.
She had no idea how far away she was from the road, nor if anyone could hear her. What if they are too far? But she had no other option. She screamed again, this time louder.
The bear made two more steps before stopping again. It looked like it was not sure what to think about this unusual short creature it obviously saw for the first time ever.
The bear made a step. Then stopped. And another step. And stopped again.
Halldis' eyes filled with tears. I don't want to die!!! She remembered her family, friends, all her wishes, hopes and plans, and her gaze blurred. Am I really going to end like this? Not even reaching half of our journey? After straying away in the forest?
Now only about fifteen feet of space remained between them.
And then, from behind her back, noises were heard from the forest, low and distant at first, but then louder and closer: shouts and the clatter of boots. The bear stopped and lifted its head, sniffing the air.
The sounds were very close now and Halldis cast a quick glance over her shoulder, while hope suddenly lit her face. Is this the rescue, against all odds...? And really it was just a moment later, a dwarf ran into the clearing, holding an axe in his hands. Then another, holding a sword. They stopped next to her, watching the bear and estimating the situation. And then about ten more came, all of them armed.
The big animal turned in an instant and quickly started to run away, obviously having judged that the situation had become very unfavourable for it. One dwarf surely wouldn't be a problem; maybe not even two. But about a dozen dwarves and as many swords and axes were too much even for such a mighty beast.
And watching the bear's speed, Halldis got the confirmation that she would have absolutely no chance in an escape attempt.
"Are you all right?" she heard a voice next to her. The whole group stood around her, and she closed her eyes for a moment. Was she all right? Yes and no, she concluded. Yes because she realized she wouldn't die; no because she was still in shock and terrified, and she couldn't return to normal in just one second.
She opened her eyes, still wet with tears, and lowered her head to hide and wipe them away with a quick move of her hand. And when she lifted her head, she realized she knew the dwarf standing next to her. It wasn't difficult to recall that height and fair hair it was the youngster she had met on the first day of the journey and in his gaze she read that he had recognized her too. And suddenly she felt her cheeks burn. On that first day he called her a child. True, then it was just an awkward mistake. But what did she do now? She acted just like a reckless child who didn't listen to instructions, but strayed away and got into trouble.
But it's not my fault. The stream has...
"Are you all right?" As she didn't answer, he repeated his question.
"Yes," she nodded, finally feeling that she could trust her voice.
"You shouldn't have strayed away like this!" one of the dwarves around her said sharply, and she turned towards him. His grey hair and beard were a sign that he had many years and experience behind him.
"I know that myself," she replied, with a little bit of anger in her voice. She didn't like being admonished like a child and wanted to explain that it was the spell and not her carelessness that had caused all this. "I would never have strayed this much if I hadn't stepped into the stream. Because what happened next..." She stopped, wondering how to explain; she had a feeling that it was impossible to turn her experience into words. And even if she made it, would they believe her?
"I went into the forest to pick up some fruit," she started to explain and showed her bag with strawberries, "when I came across this stream. Of course, I didn't drink from it, I didn't forget about the warning. I simply wanted to cross it, but the moment I stepped into it, and just barely to my ankle, I experienced... a vision. I no longer knew what was happening and I lost track of space and time. There is something in the water, something magical... I started walking, without my own conscious will, until the moment when the spell somehow stopped. Then I stepped out of the stream; it was right here. When I stepped out I became aware of everything again, but I didn't know how far I went. And just when I wanted to go back, the bear appeared."
The story didn't contain all that happened, but it showed the basis. A few heads nodded, and there was concern in their eyes.
"Surely those pointy-eared ones bewitched the forest, and now it is hostile towards us..." said one of the dwarves.
"The King must be warned that the water is even more dangerous than we thought," added another.
"Oh, what luck that I jumped over the stream! Who knows what would have happened to me if I had stepped in too..." said the third.
The one who rebuked her still observed her sternly, and his face remained frowned.
"Don't ever stray away from the group again. It could have ended much worse."
He was right, of course, and she knew it. But still...
"If it hadn't been for the stream, I would never have really gone far. Before coming to it, I was close to the road and I could hear everyone talking. I was just about to go back. If it hadn't been for the spell..." she just had to add, wanting to justify herself.
"If it hadn't been for this, if it hadn't been for that. If it hadn't been for Durin's bane, we would never have lost Khazad-dûm in the first place," he cut her off. "Here in the forest everything can be perilous, and even the slightest straying away can be fatal. Remember that." With those words, the old dwarf turned away from her and looked at the others. "We go back now. We have already lost too much time."
He led the group following the course of the stream, having set quite an intense rhythm. Halldis discovered she had trouble catching up not because of lack of fitness, but because her legs just couldn't make such big steps as the males in front of her. Besides, even though everything was over now, she started to feel shock and weakness that came as the aftermath. Her heart started pounding again and she trembled.
She walked with her eyes cast to the ground, trying not to fall behind much and unsuccessfully trying to calm her beating heart. And then she realized someone was walking next to her. She lifted her gaze all the way to the sky, it seemed to her. It was the tall young lad. He nodded to her.
"I hope you are all right now," he said, and then looked at her. It seemed as if he was thinking about speaking, and what to say. The silence prolonged for a few moments more, and then he obviously made a decision. "What did you see?"
Halldis looked at him in confusion.
"What? What do you mean?" she asked, not understanding. She was still shaken up and her mind still didn't work properly.
"Well, the vision you mentioned... I'd like to hear. What did you see?"
She observed him carefully, but on his face and in his eyes there was no mockery, nor any reproach as in the case of that older dwarf, but just curiosity. She fleetingly noticed that his eyes were also lighter brown than most dwarves had, and she thought she had never seen eyes of such a colour. Such a beautiful colour, another thought flashed. Just like hazelnut...
She then blinked and gazed in front of herself, just concentrating on walking for a few moments, and trying to think how to best describe her experience. And in fact, thinking about it was the best way to get rid of fear and tension which were the consequence of her encounter with the bear. Remembering those images, she started to relax.
"Maybe it sounds crazy, but I think that it is best to say that the stream talked to me. When I touched the water, I saw pictures and felt the whisper. It was as if the water told me the history of this forest from its very beginnings, when everything was beautiful... over the black years, when the enemies dwelt in it... to the present day, which is beautiful again. It was... special."
In the end she lifted her gaze towards him again and discovered he was looking at her. He watched her for a few moments, and then he slowly nodded.
"It sounds that way. Special, I mean. Yes, very interesting," he commented pensively.
"The feeling was so real... as if I had truly travelled back through time and watched all those events. The images were very vivid," added Halldis.
"Hm... on one hand, the forest makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable, like all of us. And on the other hand, now that I hear your story, I almost envy you. Because it sounds beautiful." Then he turned his head towards her. "And then you strayed farther?"
"Yes," she nodded. "While being focused on those pictures, I paid no attention to where I was going, or how long it lasted. I just walked through the stream and listened to it. But no, I was not lost. I just thought that I only had to follow the stream back, when the bear appeared."
He frowned for a moment, but then his face cheered up again.
"All that matters is that everything ended well. Still," he stopped and patted the sword and axe hanging from his belt, "don't go into the forest without one of those little things next time."
"Uhm, yes, I'll take it," she muttered. "I really thought that I'd be back soon, and that I didn't need it." For some reason she didn't understand, she didn't want to confess that she couldn't wield either of those.
Not that they'd be of any use against the bear, though, not when she was all alone, without the protection of the group. But they could be crucial in some other situation.
Except that she didn't have any weapons. And it would definitely be good to have something at hand if necessary.
In that moment she recognized the surroundings: they came to the place where she had stepped into the stream. From there, they only had the short distance to the road. The group in front of them turned towards it, and two of them, still in the back, followed.
"What do you do?" he asked.
The sudden change of theme made her turn her head to him. Oh my, talking to him is a true workout for my neck!
"Ceramics and pottery," she answered, lifting her head high. She loved it and was proud of her work. Then she thought it would be polite to return the question. "And you?"
"A miner, just like my brother, father and grandfather, and many others before them," he replied with a big smile. It was obvious that he was equally proud of his job. And regarding his height and broad shoulders, she was sure that the answer would be miner or smith anyway.
Impressive stature, she couldn't help noticing.
Then, when they were very near the forest's edge, he stopped and turned towards her.
"Darri, son of Brirvin," he said and bowed slightly.
"Halldis, daughter of Kuddal," she said.
A few more steps, and they went out of the forest and reached the road. Everyone was already organized, ready to go.
"Well... I hope we'll have the chance to talk again," said Darri and then moved to follow the others from the group.
"I hope so too," said Halldis and also went her way. A little surprised, she discovered that she really meant what she had said. She wanted to talk to him again... and she realized that she liked the light-brown colour of his hair and eyes... as well as his face and smile.
Halldis, pay attention to more important things, she reminded herself. She quickly started searching for her brother and friends. When she found them, she saw Glorrim's slightly worried look she was gone for a long time but she just waved to him and said she'd explain everything later, and joined her best friend.
"Tyra, I'll need your help," she said when she stood next to the other dwarf girl. Tyra had been her best friend since childhood; their parents were neighbours and the girls had been spending time together since their earliest days. Of course, her friend was taller than her just as all adults were but at least not as much as the males. So, Tyra's axe was proportionally smaller; hopefully, she'd be able to handle it. "Would you lend it to me when I'll go to the forest next time?" She gestured to her friend's axe. But then she got even wiser idea. "Or even better, you go with me. I wouldn't like to go alone any more."
Tyra's black eyes widened in concern.
"What happened?" she asked.
Halldis quickly told her about her adventure, shortening the whole story a lot. Of course, she didn't think her friend would laugh or that she wouldn't believe, but now there was no time for all the details. In the evening, when they stop, it would be a better opportunity.
"Sure. Count on me. We'll go together," Tyra nodded briskly. Then they both took their place in the procession. It was time to move on.
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