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"Now, here's my den," said Grimbar proudly when they went around the trees and bushes. "Come in, my ladies, come in. And settle yourselves. In fact wait until I make some space for you. Have I already said that I didn't expect visitors? Here, here, now you'll be able to sit down."
While Grimbar continued to chatter, he lit the oil-lamp and Halldis curiously looked around herself. The cottage was a single chamber, being kitchen, dining and sleeping room all at once. There was a small hearth next to one wall, and a pallet on the opposite side. In the middle there was a coarsely wrought table; one more smaller table, a cupboard and some shelves were on the remaining wall. The man quickly put away some rags lying on the two chairs and brought them nearer to the table.
"Here, my ladies, these are for you. Feel yourselves at own home. I'll look for some refreshment."
Ouch, Halldis whined inside, looking at the chair she was supposed to climb on, obviously not made for someone her size. Tyra's legs at least reached the floor, she noticed after they both settled.
Grimbar started to prepare supper. Halldis watched him all the time as he swiftly walked between his shelves and cupboard. In spite of his age, his moves were agile and supple. He soon turned to them, carrying a tray.
"Here you are, my dear guests. I hope you'll like it." He put bread, dried meat and cheese in front of them, as well as two little bowls filled with honey. "Ha-ha, of course, this is not made by me! Will you think bad of old Grimbar if I tell you that he is sometimes a thief, so he sometimes steals from bees? But I love honey so much! Especially in my other form."
The bread was fresh and aromatic, and a little different from that made by the dwarves, which she was used to.
"Thank you so much for your hospitality," said Halldis and smiled, and Tyra did too. "All this is very delicious." Her eyes widened when she tried the honey. It was the best that she had ever tasted, and it felt like all her senses suddenly filled with flowery fragrances and sweet flavours.
"I am glad, I am glad. If I had known that I'd have guests, I would've prepared better. Don't take amiss that the supper is so modest." As there were no more chairs in the cottage, Grimbar took the small table closer to the bigger one and sat on it.
"Everything is fine, you don't have to worry," Tyra tried to convince him.
"Indeed, we couldn't wish for anything better," added Halldis, and then she could no longer restrain her curiosity. "What are you?" she repeated the same question that she had first asked while they were still outside.
The old man took a deep breath and fell silent. This was the first time since they had met that his flow of words stopped and that he was no longer smiling, so the contrast of his earlier and current demeanour was really big. Suddenly, as if in front of them was a completely different person. He tilted his head and seemed to think. Finally, he nodded.
"My people lived here even before the arrival of the people from the Sea or those from the north, even before the orcs invaded the deep tunnels of the mountains. We were a small group who lived on the edge of Greenwood, in peace with everyone and with the forest." His voice was pensive and low, totally different than it had been until now, and his gaze unfocused. He stared at some spot on the wall behind Halldis – but judging by his facial expression, she concluded that he didn't see the wall nor anything else in the house, but images from the distant past.
"Our tales say that one of our distant ancestors, while wandering through the forest, saved little bear cubs from the deep hole in which they had fallen, and returned them to their mother. The mother bear was so grateful that she shared a part of her soul with him, giving him greater strength and sharper senses than he had as a human. But that was not all. He discovered that he could transform into a bear. And the ability was inheritable. His descendants, too, were able to change shape and to wander around in a body of the bear. And they could experience the world in a way that no man before them had ever been able to.
"And for a long time they lived in peace, and their ability served for nothing else but for their own joy – to be closer to the nature that surrounded them. You know, experiencing the world through bear senses is so intensive, and nothing that you feel as a human is a match. There are so many scents, so many sounds... But then, many centuries ago, everything started to change. Darkness crept back into the forests of the world. Evil creatures occupied the Misty Mountains. Shadows became darker and longer. Greenwood became Mirkwood. And my ancestors had to fight."
His face frowned, his eyes narrowed, and his eyebrows looked even more shaggy. His gaze hardened. The pleasant old man disappeared, both literally and figuratively. Watching him, Halldis suddenly became aware that the man in front of her is full of huge, wild, volatile power greater than in any dwarf, elf or man.
"And they fought," he continued, while his eyes were still glaring. "Stronger than ordinary men, they have given their contribution and destroyed orcs tirelessly. For decades, centuries. They have fought, perished, and risen again. There were moments when everything seemed hopeless, when the dark tide threatened to destroy all the green and good in this world."
He suddenly moved his head towards her and their gazes met. His eyes were now black and Halldis shivered. But not out of fear – she wasn't afraid of him – but because of the comprehension how difficult those times were. And then she realized something else too.
"And that world is in the very core of your being, isn't it?" she asked, barely audible. In his eyes she saw the soul of the nature itself. "You and your kind are inseparable with nature, and you suffered more." This second part was not a question any more.
"Brm, yes young dwarfess, exactly. Every wounding of the forest has wounded us too. But the brave humans and elves and dwarves and halflings saved Middle-earth, and since then the peace has returned." He nodded, and the angles of his lips lifted in a small smile. After the story of the dark past, his expression now softened.
Then there was silence, and Halldis realized she was sitting with her hands in the air – frozen in who knew which moment – and the food in front of her was totally forgotten. She roused and reached for bread and cheese again, but she chewed absent-mindedly, still thinking about everything she had heard.
"I think this is one of the most beautiful evenings in my life," said Tyra, watching Grimbar amazedly. "I am so glad that we ran into you and I feel honoured to have found out all this." In the end she slightly bowed to the old man.
"I feel the same," added Halldis with a warm smile. "Maybe some of us know about your kind and of your ability to change shape. But I wouldn't be surprised if we were now the only ones of our people who knew the whole story – the details about your beginnings. Thank you for telling us."
"Brm, I am happy to meet you too, my ladies, I really am, yes." He seemed touched by what they had told him. "I love to have guests, especially because they don't come often. Oh, I actually said that, didn't I? Don't be angry at old Grimbar, he is old and he sometimes forgets. There, only some elves comes, quite rarely. Your company is a true refreshment." He smiled broadly, for the first time after the history tale, and with that smile and with those last words returned the merry talkative Grimbar from the first moments of their meeting.
"You mentioned your people. But only you are here. Where are the others?" asked Halldis. Her curiosity was still far from satisfied.
"Oh, yes, there are others, there are. Some of our villages are in the forest south of the road, and some are on the forest edge, but more to the north of the road, so you won't see them if you don't travel northwards. Our people have been living here for thousands of years, that is our area, yes, brm. Close enough to the mountains to fight orcs who had been coming into the plain, grrr. And close enough to The Wood to pursue evil forest beings, while they still existed. But for a loooong time we've only been engaged with agriculture. And my kin with the search for honey!" After the last sentence he giggle like a child, and his joy was contagious. Both girls laughed.
"My children and their families live in the nearest village in the plains north of the road, so I am often there too. But I got a wish for more honey in my old days, you know, I have a sweet-tooth. So I made this cottage so that I can spend more time in the forest. But I like it here very much. This is my little forest home."
Halldis looked around her one more time. The cottage was small and modest, and had only basic furniture and resources, but it seemed that Grimbar really had all that he needed – in his human form. As for his other needs... well, obviously there was no problem to find treats in his bear form either.
"But I'm curious too, my dear ladies, so I ask you to answer the old Grimbar's questions too. I detected your scent from very far away, I did, it was easy, because there's a lot of you. And I was surprised to see how many! I haven't seen so many dwarves at once since..." He paused and scratched his head. "Well, never, actually! I've seen only small groups on the road, you know. Maybe traders or messengers, I used to think. But now there are hundreds of you! Oh, what, hundreds? No, thousands! Where are you heading? That is some big quest going on, I'd say, ha? Is that so?
In short, Halldis and Tyra described their journey and the plans of their King. Grimbar listened carefully and occasionally nodded. When they finished, he clapped his hands.
"That is great! Oh, if only there were no more orcs in this world, no more of that filthy spawn. You dwarves are fierce, I hope you will wipe them out of Moria. I wish you success, I do, yes."
"Thank you so much," said Tyra and nodded.
"Thank you, really," repeated Halldis, "not only for the good wishes, but for the supper too. And for the tale. And for everything."
The girls then stood up, and Grimbar rose from the little table he was sitting on. Halldis looked at him carefully, wanting to carve all the details into her memory. And no matter that she was young and couldn't know what interesting events were ahead of her in the future, she was sure that this encounter would forever remain one of the most special events in her life.
He walked them off to the door. In the meantime, it got almost completely dark, but they could discern the trees and would be able to find the way out of the forest. Grimbar looked around and lifted his head, and Halldis got the impression that he was trying to sniff the air.
Which he actually was trying, as was clear from his next words.
"Oh that weak human nose!" He laughed. "Ah well, sometimes I forget myself, so I try to sniff if there is something interesting around while I'm still in the human form. Ha-ha, lately I do that more and more often, I got old and senile. I think I'll change again into bear form when you leave, and then I'll go for a walk. You see, the night-time forest is muuuuuch more interesting than the daytime. Many more creatures roaming around, and it's more eventful. And as a bear, I can hear and see and smell better."
Although his voice was getting lower towards the end, Halldis had a feeling it echoed louder and she reminded herself again that it was not just a mild old man in front of her, but also a mighty beast.
"One more time, thank you for everything," she said and bowed. "We will never forget you."
"Nor will I forget you, my ladies."
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