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The two dwarf girls jumped and turned to the direction from where the sounds came. It was getting darker and visibility was not as good as before, but it was impossible not to notice the big shape that emerged from behind the trees and stopped about eight or nine feet from them.
Not again, were the words that flashed in Halldis' head while she stared at the huge bear, paralyzed. Not again. Not again!!!
Tyra grabbed her axe, but it was clear that the bear would prevail if it came to fight. It was also clear that they couldn't outrun in. But neither the closest dwarves nor the edge of the forest were far away, and if they started running this very moment, maybe they could even get to safety if they were lucky enough that the bear was hesitant and didn't run after them immediately.
All that crossed her mind in one single second and Halldis didn't even manage to make the first step, when she heard a sound. It was so unusual that at first she didn't realize what it was. And then it echoed again.
The bear giggled.
Her mouth opened in shock.
The bear half rose on his back legs and threw his head back. His jaws were open and he laughed.
I am losing my mind.
Then she thought that it was some spell of the forest at work again, just like in the case of the stream. She cast a quick glance to Tyra, and discovered that her friend stared equally astonished as her.
Bears shouldn't laugh like dwarves. Or humans.
And then, as its laughter slowly silenced, the bear trembled. Halldis noticed that the big body was shaking more and more, and although her reason screamed that she should run away, she just couldn't tear her gaze from the scene in front of her.
From his upright posture the bear fell forward, landing heavily on his front legs. The brown fur, riddled with grey patches, started to first shorten, and then to disappear completely. His whole body started to change shape: back legs were lengthening, while the front ones got shorter and thinner. Huge claws slowly turned to fists and fingers. He was still shaking strongly, and Halldis watched as the body turned from round bear shape to human and slender. The muzzle became shorter and shorter, bear ears disappeared, and the skull slowly got the human form. And finally, it was over.
The creature lying on the ground was still shivering and didn't rise to his feet. But in spite of the gathering darkness, there was no doubt of what she saw. Pale skin. No fur. Two legs. Two arms. Fingers. Toes. Human head. In front of them was a human.
This is crazy. Impossible. Halldis then realized that she too breathed hard and trembled. She looked at Tyra; her friend's face was frightened and pale. What have we just witnessed?, wanted to ask Halldis, but simply couldn't speak.
The man on the ground then shook his head and slowly started to rise. His face was wrinkled and his hair was grey so it was obvious that he had already seen quite a lot of winters, but his body
Goodness he's naked!!!!!
was muscular and strong. Although he still seemed a little shaky, his expression revealed that he had regained control of himself, and a big smile appeared on his face.
"Good evening, masters dwarves!" he merrily greeted them. His voice was deep, and his accent was different than that which Halldis was used to hear from people in Esgaroth. "I am always happy to meet the travellers! You know, that is why I was in such a big hurry to arrive before you leave and return to your people, because I wanted some company. And in the form of the bear I can run faster! If I had changed somewhere else and had continued as a human, you might have already gone. And I would've been alone tonight. So I changed here in front of you. Forgive my nakedness, but shape-shifting to bear is not possible in any other way, unless I am willing to destroy my clothing. And I am not! I don't have much of it, no, haha! Allow me to get dressed before we continue to talk."
He disappeared behind the trees where they had seen the cottage earlier. Halldis still stared in shock at the spot where that... man... bear... something... stood a few moments ago.
"T-Ty-Tyra..." she stammered, and her voice sounded squeaky and weak. "What have we just seen?"
"By Mahal's name, I have no clue," whispered her friend.
They looked at each other, both equally shocked.
"But we didn't dream, did we?"
"Unless we both had the same dream... no, I think we didn't."
However, it seemed they'd soon get the answers: in just a few moments the man returned and stopped in front of them, clad in the trousers and tunic they had seen earlier on the ground. His grey hair was still a little messy. Halldis observed his face; despite his big shaggy eyebrows that gave him a stern appearance at first glance, his expression was friendly and he was all smiles.
"There, now I look decent again, yes, I do," he said joyfully and made a bow. "Grimbar son of Bjorn, at your service. I hope I didn't scare you. But I was very gladdened by the possibility to have guests so I hurried back to you. Have I already said that I love meeting travellers and having guests? Well-intentioned guests, of course. If some servants of darkness came, they wouldn't end well. But luckily there are only very few of those nowadays. It is nice that we live in peaceful times. And what brings you to my little corner of the forest, masters?"
He fell silent and watched them in anticipation. Halldis still didn't manage to recollect herself and obviously neither did Tyra, for she didn't reply either and then she finally nodded.
"Uhm... no. Not the masters. We are female," said Halldis, having remembered in the very last moment that she should use the Common tongue; her brain still worked quite slowly. Her voice sounded a little stronger than when she spoke to Tyra a little while ago but only a tiny bit.
"Oh! Oh! Oh! Please forgive the old Grimbar! My sight is not as it used to be, even when I am in the bear form. Old age, and nothing I can do about it! Forgive me my ladies, please don't be angry!" He stooped towards them a little and squinted, as if trying to see better. "Indeed! By bear's claw, I made a mistake! I was fooled by your beards. You know, I haven't seen many dwarves in my life. Till tonight! I watched you pass by, and by my beard, there's a huge bunch of you!" He paused and straightened again. "And you are...?"
"Tyra daughter of Furum," came Tyra's answer first.
"Halldis daughter of Kuddal," Halldis introduced herself too, and tried to comprehend the fact that she was talking to... what? A man? A bear? Who transformed into a human. "What are you?" she asked the direct question, watching him with her eyes wide open.
The man she decided to consider him a human, at least for now clapped his thighs and started to laugh. And it seemed that his mirth was contagious, because although she had just witnessed the craziest thing in her whole life much more incredible than the experience with the stream Halldis realized she was smiling too, just like Tyra next to her.
"Well well, I have two very inquisitive ladies here, do I, is that right?" he replied, and despite the darkness that was falling, she could have sworn that his blue eyes gleefully shone. "You have never met a shape-shifter, if I'm guessing right? Moreover, you have never heard of one of us, brm?"
Just like when he growled while talking about evil beings, the sound that he uttered now didn't resemble to ordinary imitation of nature sounds by dwarvish or human voice, but was like a true bear vocalization.
"Old Grimbar will tell you everything. My home is just behind these trees. Maybe you noticed it if you passed that way? But I'm afraid I don't have much to offer you, you know. I didn't expect guests. But I like having guests. And I always have some bread and cheese and ham, you know. And honey, yes, yes, that I always have! You know, I always find the best honey, ha-brm-ha!" This last part sounded just like his laughter while he was still in the bear form.
Halldis' eyes widened again in wonder, and then she smiled in delight. This evening was becoming more and more interesting. Initial fear caused by the appearance of the bear melted away in front of the warmth and verbosity of the old man in front of them, and nothing but curiosity remained. Huge curiosity. She so wanted to see his home and find out more about him.
"I would very much like to hear more," she said eagerly, "but I'm afraid that we can't stay long..."
"Yes, our families and friends will worry if we tarry too long," added Tyra.
"You stay for as long as you like, yes, and go back to your people whenever you like! The forest edge is near, you saw that yourselves. Only a few steps away. Even your steps!" he exclaimed, and then stopped as if realizing what he had just said. He smiled penitently, and looked really embarrassed. "You are not angry because of my comment? Say you are not. Old Grimbar didn't mean anything bad. My legs are a little longer than yours, that's all I wanted to say. But you'll be able to return soon. So, my ladies," he bowed and showed the direction, "follow me."
Both dwarf girls enthusiastically went after him, and Halldis smiled. Yes, the dwarves got out of The Wood of Greenleaves and reached the plain, but the surprises the forest held obviously still weren't over.
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