Hurin was not surprised to discover the booty from the Orc cavern was eatables of various kinds. "Those are deer I shot with my great bow." the silver haired young Beleg informed him gravely, pointing to a brace of cooked rabbits.
"Right." said the captain. "And that -" indicating a large, round pastry, "Is a boar killed by us after a tremendous battle."
"Ah." said Hurin appreciatively. "And I see you have fair fruits gathered with much labor from the wilds." and he pointed to the dried apples stuck all over with raisins, honey glazed wafers and a great store of wall and chestnuts. The children beamed approval.
As they ate they dropped character and introduced themselves properly: The captain's name was Amlas and the oldest girl Luneth and middle one Aewen, were his sisters. The boy Bregol was their cousin. Meglin, who was of an age with Bregol, was the brother of little Cabor and the lovely, pale haired youngest girl was the sister of 'Beleg'. His name was Gwaer and hers Ninui - "Because she's always crying." her brother explained.
"Am not!" she denied furiously.
"Are too." said Gwaer.
"Am not!" she repeated, emphatic tears starting in her eyes.
"You are right this minute!"
"No I'm not!"
"Yes you are! Isn't she, Amlas?"
Hurin thought it wise to intervene. "A delicate sensibility is desirable in a fair lady." he said firmly.
The children looked dubious but were to well trained to contradict a guest.
"And you are Hurin from the southern kingdom." Luneth said. "Did the Dunadan send you to us?"
By now Hurin had learned that this was what his Northern subjects called Isildur's Heir. "Not directly." he answered carefully. "But certainly I came because of him, to make some small return for the service he has done our people."
"You play very well." Meglin told him kindly.
Hurin smiled. "Thank you. My sisters and I used to play Bow and Helm."
"Oh! of course you'd know the same stories." Amlas said in tones of discovery. "Did you do Barahir and his band too? And the wars of Doriath?"
"But only the oldest stories." said Luneth, frowning a little. "Not the ones from the days of the Kings like Valandur and the Dragon and the Witch Wars."
"I know a little about the latter." Hurin answered. "Our King's son led an army to the aid of your folk."
"That was the Last War." Amlas nodded. "Before we vanished."
"We're secret now." Gwaer explained. "We fight from hiding like the outlaws of old."
"So Prince Armegil told me." Hurin said a little grimly.
For a moment the children didn't seem to know who he meant, then understanding dawned. "Oh! You mean the Captain." said Amlas. "We don't have princes and lords any more."
"So I have been told." Hurin said even more grimly.
Hurin pursued his friendship with the band of children, the first he had made here in the North, and was soon included in their games and most but not all of their projects. One day Amlas, Luneth and Gwaer found him in the hall and tugged him aside for a private conference, small faces worried.
"I think we may be in trouble -" Amlas began.
"There's no 'may' about it." Luneth grumbled.
Her brother hushed her impatiently. "We had an idea. You know how much time and labor it takes to churn milk into butter and cheese? Well ducks paddle don't they? So why not have them paddle the milk instead of churning?"
Hurin restrained both his alarm and his hilarity by a tremendous effort of will allowing nothing but sympathetic interest to show upon his face. "It didn't work?"
"Not at all." Luneth answered. "They splashed the milk out of the basins and flew around knocking things over and shedding feathers."
"But we cleaned it up." Gwaer put in hopefully. "Maybe nobody will notice."
"They'll notice." Hurin said with conviction born of long and bitter experience. "They always notice."
"Besides there's all the milk and things we spoiled." Luneth swallowed unhappily. "I think we have to tell."
"What do you think?" Amlas asked anxiously.
"I'm afraid Luneth is right." Hurin told him. "It's always better to confess rather than be caught. And you can't risk somebody else being blamed can you?"
"No-o." Amlas conceded reluctantly.
"We were just trying to help." Gwaer said defensively.
"I told you we should have asked first." said Luneth.
"It usually is best to ask." Hurin agreed gravely. And so he helped the three older children gather up their cohorts, went with them to the Lady Nienor and stood by for moral support as they made their confession.
She took it with the calm characteristic of the Northern Dunedain. "An interesting and original idea." she said judicially after they told all. "But you would have done better to experiment in a small way before turning half a dozen ducks loose in the dairy. And you most certainly should have asked first."
"We were afraid you'd say no." Amlas admitted.
"Sometimes there is good reason for a no." Nienor replied. "You may take two days in your chambers to consider the wisdom of your actions. And each of you is to write a letter of apology to Ailin and the dairy staff for the extra work you have given them."
The children departed with drooping heads and dragging feet leaving the two adults to stare at each other for a moment before both melted into laughter. "Oh my!" Nienor gasped, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. "Oh my."
"Poor little things." Hurin wheezed. "Their intentions were good."
"Good intentions, alas, lead to trouble at least as often as bad ones. If not more so."
"I've noticed that." Hurin agreed wryly.
"When I was nine I decided to melt some nuggets of gold for the smiths and set fire to the forge." Nienor confessed.
Hurin grinned ruefully. "When I was eight my sisters and I tried to help the cooks stretch an insufficient amount of sugar by adding powdered sand." They shared another laugh.
"Oh well, there is something to be said for originality of thought." Nienor gasped after a time.
"And initiative." Hurin agreed, remembering what Grandfather had said about the sanded sugar.
Two days later Hurin celebrated the release of his little friends from durance vile by taking the lot fishing on the lake - or rather letting them take him. Having spent his life by the great river Hurin had some experience of boats but the fragile, shell-like Ranger craft were far trickier to handle and he had dressed lightly in the expectation of ending up in the water - which he did, twice, along with his giggling charges.
They stayed out till late afternoon. The sun was sinking towards the western hill, its rays gilding the rippling waters, and their two boats were half filled with fish. Hurin was about to propose they turn for home when little Ninui, in the second boat, gave a cry and pointed to the sky.
A spear point of great swans, golden white in the late sunlight, glided soundlessly overhead. Immediately the children began shouting and waving, rocking the two boats violently. Hurin clutched the sides trying desperately to steady his eggshell of a craft then looked up to see the swans turn from their northerly course and glide in to soft, plashy landings on the water around them.
They were huge, at least twice the size of ordinary swans, and so white they shone with bright black eyes and beaks of burnished gold. The children almost capsized the little boats in their excitement, reaching out eager hands to pet and calling the great birds by Sindarin names that struck a familiar chord in Hurin's mind but roused no clear memories: Isfin, Nolwen, Findri...
"Here now!" Hurin exclaimed in some alarm as little Ninui and Cabor, the smallest of the boys, scrambled onto the broad backs of two of the swans.
"It's all right," Luneth assured him, "they don't mind."
And they didn't, these great swans appeared to be much better tempered than the ones who decorated the lakes and pools of the White City's townlands. The two mounted birds took off, flapping slowly low over the water towards the grey bulk of Nen Giliath, the children squealing happily on their backs. The boats paddled after accompanied by the rest of the flock, Hurin watching anxiously as the swans with the children rose higher to skim over the roofs of the stronghold.
His concern proved unnecessary, both birds and little ones were discovered safe and sound, floating serenely in the still waters of the central pool when they reached it. Hurin and the older children moored their boats alongside the flight of water-steps leading up to the hall and the swan bearing Ninui bumped herself gently against the lowest of them. The little girl, taking the hint, dismounted. The great bird climbed up beside her, blurred, grew and transformed into a tall Elven lady with a cataract of white hair flowing over a great cape of snowy feathers.
Hurin's jaw dropped, and stayed dropped as one by one the swans mounted the steps and turned into lovely, dark haired, feather cloaked Elf women. The children didn't so much as blink, just hugged the ladies as eagerly as they'd petted the swans and went right on chattering happily.
The Lady Ellemir appeared in the archway above accompanied by Captain Halbarad and Nienor. She and the white haired Elf embraced like old friends. Nienor descended the steps to join a staring, bewildered, Hurin.
"Our allies are beginning to arrive." she said, as if that explained everything.
"Allies?" he echoed helplessly.
Nienor nodded. "Queen Isfin and her ladies from Amon Geleidh." as he continued to look blank. "You know, Isfin daughter of Feanor and her twelve swan maidens."
Memories of First Age nursery tales returned and he stared up the steps in disbelief as the last of the feather cloaked Elven ladies vanished under the archway with a child by each hand. "Here?"
"You remember Isfin and her following took refuge east of the Ered Lindon before the sinking of Beleriand." Nienor continued patiently. "They dwell now on an outlying mountain to the south and are old allies of our folk." She took his hand. "Come inside, you will take cold in those thin things."
Dumbly Hurin followed her up the steps and into the long dark passage to the hall. He had long thought the Elder Days felt somehow closer here in the North, but this appearance of characters from the oldest tales alive and real made it seem as if they had never passed away!