The Sweary Nuclear Pigeons present...


Rock Island



Half way between the Isle of Balar, a mass, like the Wight low in the north and rising to a mountainous southern coast, but of double the size, and the mouths of Sirion that drained the western half of Beleriand, the starlight picked out a white rim of foam where the waves washed the walls of another, smaller island. In form it resembled a volcanic neck, sheer cliffs rising straight from the depths, black and shiny at the base, higher up streaked with the droppings of the gannets, fulmars and puffins between whose curiously segregated colonies the cliff was divided. At the very top the scattered outlines of trees were silhouetted faintly against the stars. No beach broke the forbidding ramparts, no bays or shallows provided any anchorage. On all sides the cliff rose from the ocean floor like a curtain wall from a moat, unbroken save for the occasional sheer-sided, slimy, bird-loud axe-cleft slashed into it by selective erosion.

Balar remained hidden behind the bulk of the island as the little schooner rounded the north-eastern corner and opened up the eastern side. Galadriel put the helm down and there followed a creaking of blocks as she hauled in the sheets. She moved to the starboard rail and rested her hands on it, inspecting the passing cliffs as the ship slipped through the calm waters in the lee of the island.

"It is rock", said Nerdanel, moving up beside her and resting her head on Galadriel's shoulder.

"Tolondo", said Galadriel.

"Before we turned the corner", said Nerdanel contemplatively, "there was rock there, too."

"And round the next corner", said Galadriel in the same tone, "there is some more rock".

"Rock and roll", said Nerdanel, producing a bun and taking a bite out of it.

Galadriel groaned, and moved back to the wheel.

"I did not think it was that bad", said Nerdanel.

"It was bad enough", said Galadriel, gradually steering closer in under the rock wall. The ship slowed as the cliff cut off the wind.

"Bad enough that you should want to steer us into the cliff?" said Nerdanel.

"Oh, I will do that in any case", said Galadriel.

Nerdanel looked ahead at the dark mass looming high over the bow. "I am yet to be convinced that that is a good idea", she said.

"Yes", said Galadriel, moving to the foot of the foremast and beginning to unfasten the halyards. As the jib came down the stars off the port bow shone briefly where it had been, then disappeared again.

"Well, at least you are doing it slowly", said Nerdanel. "I can be thankful for that."

"You can", agreed Galadriel, continuing to lower sail. Faint echoes of the sounds of rope and canvas returned from all sides, mixed with the squawks of squabbling seabirds. Only overhead now could the sky be seen, a narrow ribbon of stars plunging into the sea astern and cut off abruptly not far ahead.

Nerdanel could now just make out a suggestion of texture to the darkness in front. "Galadriel", she said, "we are about to hit the fucking cliff."

"Do you really think so?" said Galadriel. "I can think of better ways to pass the time. And to pass these rocks too." She stood looking at the strip of sky as the ship's remaining momentum carried them slowly on through the musty air hanging dankly round them.

"I would suggest that you think quickly then", said Nerdanel.

Smoothly and without hurrying, Galadriel put the helm hard over. Stars began pouring into the darkness ahead, a waterfall of lights drifting down the sky and spreading round the ship on both sides. There was a splash as Galadriel dropped the waiting kedge over the stern. She strode to the bow, lifted the main anchor, whirled it around and let fly. A crash sounded from the darkness, then the zipping sound of the anchor warp falling into the water. Galadriel hauled in the warp, testing the hold, let out some slack and made the warp fast. Silence fell, leaving only the faint and distant trickle of running water from somewhere off ahead.

"That was commendably fast", said Nerdanel, looking about the small pool in which they were now floating.

"Oh, I did all the thinking some time ago", shrugged Galadriel.

Small though the island was, its position as some of the first land encountered by weather systems coming in off the great ocean provided sufficient rain to its flattish top to sustain a small stream, which had found its path of least resistance along a vein of softer rock and followed it to the sea. At one time it had leapt over the precipice in a long waterfall, but over time it had eroded its way back through the fissure and now it chattered down a grassy valley to a miniature beach in a tiny, high-walled cove, connected to the sea by a narrow, right-angled crack in the cliffs. This was the hidden harbour in which Galadriel's ship was now lying; unless a ship approached the cliffs dangerously closely, the entrance could not even be seen, and even if it was, only by venturing right in between its confining walls could it be distinguished from the blind fissures whose dead-end traps, dark clefts booming with waves and odorous of guano, were scattered elsewhere around the island's coastline.

"Oh, I see", said Nerdanel. "This is like the cottage, then; another of Galadriel's secret little hideaways."

"It will be", said Galadriel, beginning to gather the lowered mainsail. "If it is agreeable to you, of course."

"I get a choice, then?" said Nerdanel. "Maybe it is not so like the cottage after all."

"For the time being", said Galadriel. "It is the island or the ship. Until we run out of fresh water, or decide that we want a change from fish, or..."

"Yes, yes, very good", said Nerdanel. "It is just that I was expecting that we would go all the way, not stop and hang about on a rock offshore like those Tellurians who live on a tea-tray on top of a pair of bollards."

Galadriel shrugged. "There is no harbour to match this anywhere along the coast of Beleriand. A few for shelter, but none for secrecy. And the secrecy is important." She finished fastening the mainsail cover and stood to face Nerdanel with her hands on her hips. "Morgoth believes you remained in Valinor; at least, he has no reason to think otherwise. And he must gain no hint, hear no rumour that it is not so. The mother of the leaders of those who came to wage war on him, also present in Middle-earth... he would undoubtedly change his strategy, even if only in minor ways, in the face of such an important factor; and this cannot be, for all his moves are recorded in detail and to deviate would bring disaster. And rumour there would certainly be among the Elves were your presence known, though I hardly need tell you that."

"Yes, Galadriel", said Nerdanel. "But known it will be, to my sons at least, though I have to swim for it; and I hardly need tell you that."

Galadriel, half way to the foremast, swung round without breaking her stride and returned aft to take Nerdanel in her arms. "That will not be necessary, my dear", she said. "It is only in one sense that we lack freedom of action. In another, we have more than the warriors and kings. Of me in this age only two minor deeds are recorded, and of you none at all. As long as we avoid making history we can do as we please."

"And if I know my Gala, someone's going to push the fuckin' limits", came a musical voice from the masthead, at which both Elves looked up and spluttered with laughter.

Galadriel put her hands on Nerdanel's shoulders and gave her a gentle smile. "Put the kettle on while I finish stowing the sails", she said. "A harbour isn't a proper harbour until you've made tea in it."

Islands, as a general rule, tend to be low around the edges and to achieve their maximum altitude somewhere towards the middle. This one, however, was more the other way round. One of a number of pseudovolcanic scars remaining from the opposing efforts of the Valar and Melkor to shape geography to their disparate likings, some bolt or shaft had penetrated the bedrock and heated a buried volume to the point of plasticity, while at the same time opening fissures through which seawater percolated around and beneath the magmatic mass. Gradually the shattered surrounding rock collapsed, forcing the magma to the surface, a process at first smooth and slow, but in its latter stages punctuated by steam explosions as the movement returned the underlying moisture to the lower pressures near the surface. When all had finally settled, there remained an outer wall of solid basaltic material surrounding a core of softer, poorly-consolidated and hydrothermally-altered rocks. Subsequent erosion had shaped this into the form it now took, an undulating, fertile central region some miles in diameter concealed within an encircling rampart of black peaks and sheer, gull-swarming cliff walls.

"And moreover", said Galadriel, "scars and chasms in the sea bed bring to the surface here a portion of the cold deep current flowing from the North, to mingle with the warm air of the breezes from the south-west. Dense sea fogs are common in this bay, and when in due time there may be eyes to see, still we can pass unseen between the island and the shore. For the moment, at least, it is quite perfect."

"Nearly perfect, at least", said Nerdanel, as Galadriel jabbed a spade into the ground and redistributed a portion of soil.

The two Elves were climbing, slowly and in single file, up through the miniature ravine down which the little stream leapt from pool to pool as it escaped the central bowl of the island to merge with the sea at the head of the harbour. Here and there the sides of the valley pressed the stream too closely and steeply to permit of a convenient passage, and Galadriel, with a spade from the ship's extensive toolchest, was cutting little sheep-tracks into the swell of the hillside to alleviate the difficulty.

Galadriel spread a scoop of gravel from the stream-bed over the newly-bared earth and slapped it down with the back of the spade. "Strategically perfect", she said.

"So those stones are the elemental smattering, I suppose", said Nerdanel.

"It is you who are very well acquainted with matters mathematical", said Galadriel. "I fear it is more my lot to play the sanctimonious part."

"Yes", said Nerdanel. "You are good at that, I have seen." Galadriel snorted. "But the pirate heart beats strongly, and that I have seen too."

"It is a glorious thing", said Galadriel.

By now the ravine was shallowing; in a few minutes more they passed between the pair of outcrops that guarded its head and stepped forth into the bed of the lake that had existed before the fugitive stream had cleaved the stone that barred its exit. Of the lake there remained now a shallow but broad pool, its unrippled surface reflecting the stars overhead with a clarity that suggested it was itself a portion of sky, inverted and laid on the ground. On the far side a meadowlike expanse of rough grass rose gently from the water, eventually steepening into a low but precipitous face that rose a further ten or fifteen feet in maybe two horizontally before flattening abruptly out, the edge overhung with trees and undergrowth which apparently preferred the higher soil to that of the old lake bed below.

"Oh, well, this is rather lovely", observed Nerdanel as she looked around her. "Even though it does give a certain suggestion of being at the bottom of a bath. But perhaps that is just where we are standing."

"Then let us stand somewhere else", said Galadriel, springing across the stream. Nerdanel followed, and together they made their way around the left hand side of the lake. Soon the slope on their left eased into a wide and shallow valley that ran up the side of the wood to the skyline, with a small rill trickling down the middle. This they crossed also, and a narrow belt of trees that ran down the far side, and headed out into the rough meadow.

Galadriel sat in the middle of the meadow, her arms wrapped around her knees, and looked out across the pool. On the other side was a similar precipitous though low face, but arising from much closer to the shore, and instead of a flat wooded shelf above it there rose a steep slope, grassed at the bottom but increasingly rocky as it approached the line that marked the edge of the cliff and the fall to the sea. Highest near the outlet, this face diminished in height as it approached the head of the pool, the slope above shelving in sympathy, and passing into the broad, flat valley down which the inflowing stream meandered its way from the heart of the island.

"I am afraid it still rather evokes a bath from here", she said. "But I am sure you will soon get used to it."

But Nerdanel was not looking; she had stretched herself full length on the ground beside Galadriel, and lay on her back with her eyes closed, her lips gently curved in an expression of calm, looking more at peace than Galadriel had seen her for a long while.

"As long as it does not evoke a toilet, it is fine by me", she said. "New land though it be, this is the first time since our return that I truly feel I have come home. Here there is peace, true peace, and that has been a stranger to me for too long."

Galadriel looked down at her friend, and ran the tip of one finger through her hair. "It is no Valinor", she said.

"And all the better for that", said Nerdanel quietly but emphatically. "Valinor is full of dicks... I mean not all the trouble and betrayals, but the attitudes of too many people long before. Gold and jewels and tinsel and baubles, artefacts and artifice indulged in obsessively and far beyond their worth. Oh, I make sculptures. But I do not cover them in glitter and make them in such gaudy profusion that they assault your eyes at every turn no matter where you look. Are we Elves, or magpies, to make so much of the shiny stones that come up with every shovelful of dirt? The ubiquitous glint and glitz, in time it is like needles into your brain."

She raised herself onto one elbow and reached out to run the fingers of the other hand along Galadriel's arm. "You are one of the few women I have ever met who wears no ornament of any kind." She touched the bare skin of the curve between Galadriel's neck and shoulder. "No necklaces, no gold, no jewels, a plain and simple white dress... how many do you know yourself who dress as you and I? And the men are as bad with their swords and armour. Weaponry enough to equip a hundred armies, and all made for ornament with neither thought nor need, when it was made, of putting it to use. What avails it anyone to amass stones and blades purely to compare the count with their neighbour, aiming to make theirs the higher? As well might they feast on chopped straw and compare the fatness of their turds."

"It is the Tellurian sickness", said Galadriel sadly.

"Pshaw", said Nerdanel. "That mad planet takes it to another dimension, and I speak literally. They diminish their notional count by a function of time, so that without continuous replenishment it tends to zero, and they can never allow themselves to stop. And they know they are destroying their own world with it, and do not see that as any reason to stop. On both counts they would gain mightily by redirecting their obsession to the comparison of turds, but even when they have ruined their world to the point where they have nothing else to compare, still I cannot see them admitting their fault."

"Nor I", said Galadriel, "for they see none. It is a disease of the mind, contagious, chronic, and nigh incurable; they succumb in their cradles and are beyond hope before ever they begin their education. And it is a powerful sickness; so powerful, indeed, that even one with the wisdom to recognise it and reject it as far as he was able can still transmit it across the void."

"Ah", said Nerdanel. "You were speaking literally too."

"As I was when I said that this is no Valinor", said Galadriel. "That at least will endure as long as the Valar. This will not. In a few hundred years they will destroy it, and nothing but the rolling ocean will remain."

"Might I suggest that you would do better not to wind them up in the first place?" suggested Nerdanel.

"The suggestion is not without merit", admitted Galadriel, "but it misses the mark. Rather, it is they who would do better to take Nadreck of Palain for a military adviser in place of Admiral Haynes. But it is the same sickness again, for by that time they will know full well how Morgoth may be taken by commando raid, yet will still choose ostentation and display, and consider half a continent as collateral damage a small price."

"Oh, it is him they will be after, is it?" said Nerdanel. "In that case there is nothing to worry about", and she lay back on the grass and closed her eyes.

Galadriel rested her head on her knees and slowly gave herself over to giggles.

"What?" demanded Nerdanel.

"You, my incorrigible love", said Galadriel, her head still on her knees. "You and birdie make a right pair. I do seem to attract the weird ones."

"Well, yes. Birds of a feather, and all that", said Nerdanel. "Where has she got to, by the way?"

Galadriel raised her head. "In the lake, having a bath", she said.

"Pigeon being a duck", said Nerdanel.

"I think she's being a great crested grebe", said Galadriel. "It must be warmer than it looks."

Nerdanel opened her eyes and raised herself on her elbows to see. At first she could not spot the pigeon, but soon a trail of ripples led her eye to a little head protruding from the water, gliding along with no apparent means of locomotion. Galadriel was right; she did look like a grebe.

"What a remarkable bird", said Nerdanel. "I have not seen her do that before."

"She does it in my bath sometimes", said Galadriel. "She won't do it in cold water. There must be a hot spring under the water there, or something of the kind."

Nerdanel contemplated this. "It has cooled down by the time it gets to the outflow", she observed, "but that is not surprising." Abruptly, she got to her feet. "I shall investigate", she said, and strode purposefully down to the shoreline. Galadriel followed at a more relaxed pace.

Nerdanel stepped into the shallows a few yards from the pigeon, who ceased her gyrations to watch. She wriggled her toes under the water. "It is", she informed Galadriel over her shoulder, "just like a bath. Though it does look like one that someone has used already - you mucky bird", this to the pigeon, "but never mind." With one movement she lifted her dress over her head and flung it on the ground behind; she raised her arms above her head, bent her knees, and sprang forward in a graceful dive.

"Gaaaaah!" Nerdanel rose spluttering from water which barely reached her hips, and turned to face Galadriel. Her arms she held outstretched and slightly bent, in a zombie-like pose; from shoulder to fingertips they were covered thickly in a layer of whitish mud. A lump of the same substance adorned her forehead and mingled with her hair. She spat away a blob which trickled down her nose and into her mouth.

"You mucky girl", said the pigeon.

Galadriel put her hands on her knees to support herself, then slowly sank to the ground, helplessly laughing like a drain. Nerdanel glowered, and threw a handful of mud at her. She only laughed the more. She scraped the mud off and threw it back. Nerdanel replied in kind.

A battle in which you rely on recycling the other side's spent ammunition is always one in which you are at a disadvantage. Lifting off her dress in turn, Galadriel ran into the lake herself and repeated Nerdanel's dive; on surfacing she held a double handful of mud, and promptly plopped the lot onto Nerdanel's head. Nerdanel returned most of it by swinging her head as it ran down her braid, using the braid as a misbehaving cow uses her tail. The pigeon, her wings working like oars, sculled herself rapidly to shore to escape the escalating mudfight.

It was the pigeon, in fact, who put an end to it. With much tugging and flapping, she disentangled the Elves' discarded dresses and spread them on the grass; then, strutting importantly to and from the shore, she collected beakfuls of the damp clay and deposited them one by one on the material in geometrical patterns. By the time they noticed what she was up to she had covered the whole of Galadriel's dress and half of Nerdanel's, and was planning ways to extend the pattern to three dimensions.

"Take them off, birdie", said Galadriel when she had got her breath back.

The pigeon surveyed the nearest lump, first with one eye, then the other, and with a sudden movement impaled it with her beak. Raising her head, she shuffled sideways a fraction to line up with the next one, then hammered the lump in her beak down onto it, squashing the two lumps into one. Lifting the enlarged lump she repeated the manoeuvre with the third, and so proceeded. Soon she was carrying so much mud that she could not see what she was doing, and bits were falling off it as fast as they were stuck on; bits which she then stood on, more often than not, impressing footprints of clay into the material.

"Not like that, you little bugger!" Galadriel cried.

With much tangling of feet in folds of the material, the pigeon stumbled off the dress, knocked the lump of mud off on the ground and shook her beak vigorously to get rid of the remnants. She inspected the dress again. "I shall use steam cleaning", she announced, and before Galadriel could reply she hit the nearest lump with a concentrated, tightly-focussed burst of fast neutrons. Bits of hot clay shrapnel flew in all directions.

"Pick them off", ordered Galadriel. "With your beak, one at a time, as you put them on, and stop being a twat."

But the pigeon seemed to have largely exhausted her inclinations in that direction. While she did make a point of working backwards from the last lump she had applied and returning each lump individually to the spot on the shore from which she had obtained it, at which Galadriel rolled her eyes, she proceeded not with her former air of jaunty silliness but with a much more abstracted attitude, her thoughts apparently elsewhere.

This done, she hopped onto a small rock that lay by the shore, withdrew one leg into her feathers, and set herself to wait for Galadriel and Nerdanel to finish their bath. Further offshore, they had discovered, the water was some six or eight feet deep but still pleasantly hot, and having rid themselves of the coating of mud they were happy to simply drift gently about luxuriating in the warmth.

By the time they felt ready to come out the pigeon's cogitations appeared to have reached a conclusion. Intercepting Galadriel as she was about to leave the water, she stirred up a patch of mud with her beak and asked Galadriel to make a Silmaril from the cloudy water - "but only a really tiny one, please, and don't light it up."

Galadriel regarded her with her hands on her hips. "Very well, birdie, it would appear that you have me baffled. I can think of numberless silly things that you might be planning to do with it, but I do not think it is any of those that you have in mind."

"Why should I be wanting it for something silly?" replied the pigeon in innocent tones. "I want it for an experiment. I am asking you to assist me in making a scientific discovery."

"The two are not mutually exclusive, as I am very sure you are well aware", said Galadriel.

"Oh, go on", said the pigeon.

Galadriel sighed. "Very well. But I shall burst it when you have done with it, birdie, and it may not be you that decides when that shall be."

She scooped a few drops of the muddy water into her hand, and in a few seconds had condensed them into a tiny, dark jewel no bigger than a grain of wheat. She deposited the glittering grain in front of the pigeon, and stood back to watch what she would do.

What she did was in fact nothing particularly exciting. She inspected the speck from all angles, picked it up, tasted it, put it down again, inspected it some more, then taking a few steps back, she hit it with a weak, brief burst of neutrons. Nothing happened. She tried again, with a slightly more energetic burst; this produced a faint flash of light. She repeated this a few times, seeming to observe the flashes closely, then stepped forward again and gave the grain another detailed inspection. Then she ate it.

"For goodness' sake, birdie", said Galadriel, to the accompaniment of Nerdanel's giggles.

The remaining mud on Galadriel's dress had pretty much dried by this time, and a vigorous shake followed by a few slaps of the hand sufficed to dislodge those remnants that were still inclined to cling. Nerdanel's dress having received less detailed attention, she simply slipped it on without further ado. But neither of them took their eyes off the pigeon, who was alternating between staring boggly-eyed at her own crop and jiggling her beak among its covering feathers.

After a time she seemed to tire of this. She stood up, belched, wobbled her beak a couple of times, and directed a steady gaze at the bank below the wood, some fifty yards off.

There was a noise like an erupting fart. Blinding blue Cerenkov light threw sharp black shadows from every blade of grass. A heavy thud sounded from the bank; a blast of stones and debris burst from it in a horizontal column, and as the dust cleared a neat circular hole in the face was revealed.

"Fuck's sake, shitehawk", said Nerdanel crossly. "What has got into you today?"

Galadriel, on the other hand, merely raised her eyebrows; then, returning to the water's edge, she picked up some of the clay, inspected it, poked it about, even tried tasting it. She looked back at the bird, then at the clay again; then, with a slight upward twitch of her lips, she put the lump down and swilled her hand clean in the edge of the lake.

"Some of us", said the pigeon to Nerdanel, "have been occupying our minds with higher matters than playing at being mud-eels. Some of us have been doing science. Some of us have been forming hypotheses concerning the composition of the mud, and having confirmed them, have determined that the finding has useful applications in such matters as the provision of shelter. Some of us", and she deftly pulled a flight feather through her beak, "have been expanding the frontiers of knowledge."

"Some of us", said Nerdanel to the pigeon, "have arrived at this island with the intention of living here. Some of us, on the other hand, seem to be more interested in blowing it up. Might I suggest that such interests would be better indulged on Tellus than here? We are not trying to live there, and the Tellurians are very fond of things blowing up."

"Lithium", came Galadriel's voice. "I apologise, birdie, and I congratulate you on your forethought."

Nerdanel looked from Galadriel to the bird and back again. "I am glad that lithium does not have such an effect on me", she declared.

Galadriel smiled. "She uses it as a neutron accelerator, in effect. She can, barely, manage to initiate fusion using the tritium bred from it. She is well short of breakeven, but the highly energetic fusion neutrons greatly enhance her efficiency at dealing with the more useless actinide isotopes. It is like a tonic to her, I suppose, and it tends to go to her head."

"I see", said Nerdanel. "So the reason she equates the provision of shelter with blowing the place up is that she is stoned on lithium. I see." Galadriel groaned. "I suppose that as long as she does not blow the ship up, we will manage somehow."

"Na. When this place has seasons, and it is winter", said the pigeon, "it will be pissing cold on that ship."

"We have a reactor, do we not?" objected Nerdanel. "We have been cooking our food on something, at any rate."

"No, she is right", said Galadriel. "You have not been on a ship in freezing weather. Certainly it is possible to keep the cabin cosy, but the cold and damp is still pervasive, and the heat from the cabin does not dispel the ice on deck; if anything, it makes it worse. And the unmentionable functions become even less mentionable. It is undeniable that a closer approximation to birdie's natural habitat would be far more comfortable for us as well."

"So she has worked out how to incorporate a lithium-enriched fusor into her unique metabolism to produce very fast neutrons as a mining tool", said Nerdanel. "And with commendable speed, too. Yes. Very good. I am impressed, birdie, and I thank you for all the digging you have spared us."

It was not clear if the pigeon made any reply or not; if she did, it was addressed to the feathers under the root of her wing at very close range. Galadriel smiled.

"So what are you up to now?" asked Nerdanel.

"I thought we might go back to the ship and have a cup of tea", answered Galadriel innocently.

Nerdanel rolled her eyes. "Predictable, really, I suppose. It was an act of purest optimism to have posed the question in the first place."

Galadriel merely tossed her head with a smile and ambled off towards the foot of the lake.

"No flies on you", said the pigeon, flying up onto Nerdanel's shoulder as she began to follow.

"I should hope not, indeed", said Nerdanel. "I know the signs. I have been hanging around with you two for long enough now."

"Huh?" said the pigeon. "I don't get that."

"Oh, come on, you daftie", said Nerdanel, "of course you bloody do."

"No I don't", said the pigeon. "I don't see how you can establish a baseline."

"Very easily", said Nerdanel. "Being up to something is the baseline. It is if I ever get the feeling that you and Galadriel are not engaged in some nefarious intrigue that I shall start to worry."

Nerdanel took a drink of her tea, put the mug down and relaxed back into her seat; paused, then leaned forward again and reached behind her. Bringing her hand back around, she observed the contents and looked at the pigeon under lowered eyebrows.

"What?" said the pigeon. "You should have shaken it, like Gala did."

Nerdanel put her tongue out at the bird. The lump of clay was still damp, and quite plastic. She took another sip of tea, looking at Galadriel over the top of the mug. Almost as if she was not thinking about it, her fingers began to knead the clay.

A brief rummage down the back of the seat cushion provided her with a blim of fluff. She dipped one finger in her tea, dripping the moisture into a little puddle in the palm of her other hand; shortly, a faint glow arose.

She finished her tea, then sat forward to reach the teapot and refilled her mug. The level in Galadriel's mug was also low. She topped that up too.

"Thank you", said Galadriel, reaching out to take it; but her hand stopped in mid-air.

Sitting on the rim of the mug was a little figure of herself, gazing abstractedly into the distance and apparently unaware both of the figure of Nerdanel standing immediately behind holding a double handful of mud over her head, and of the pigeon on her knee intently engaged, apparently, in blowing something up: in front of her a collection of wisps hung in the air seemingly without support, illuminated by a glowing speck at its centre. How a stationary object managed to convey such a strong impression of so brief and dynamic a thing as an explosion is beyond explanation, but a real explosion could hardly have bettered it.

Galadriel burst out laughing. "Oh, Nerdanel, you daftie. That is excellent."

"Well, you looked so thoughtful, sitting there like that", said Nerdanel. "You were an irresistible subject."

"I was thinking", said Galadriel.

"I could see that", said Nerdanel.

"There is one small problem", said Galadriel. "I am now no longer able to drink my tea." She got up, and rummaged briefly in a locker, from which she produced a short length of tubing; this she proceeded to use as a straw to suck up her tea without disturbing the balance of the sculpture.

Now it was Nerdanel's turn to burst out laughing. Galadriel, still drinking, raised her eyebrows at her, at which she nearly collapsed.

"What has bitten you?" asked Galadriel, putting the tube down.

"You", said Nerdanel, "doing that. Do you have any idea what you look like?" She picked up some fragments of surplus clay and began to mould them; the result she passed to Galadriel. "There. Like that." It was a miniature bust of Galadriel, her eyes boggling as she raised her eyebrows and her lips pursed around the tube as it emerged from her mouth like a strand of spaghetti.

"Ai, that is hideous", shrieked Galadriel, laughing and passing it back.

Nerdanel held up her palm. "No, no, you keep it. I insist."

"I am not keeping that", said Galadriel, and dropped it into Nerdanel's tea.

Nerdanel's hand moved towards her mug. Galadriel picked up the tube again, and winked at Nerdanel as she dipped it into her own mug. Nerdanel unconcernedly picked up the spoon which was lying next to her mug, and began fishing. She laid her hand flat on the table, the spoon handle between two fingers; she had made a catch, but the immersion had not done it any good.

Galadriel drank her tea with exaggerated sucking noises, rolling her eyes. Nerdanel flicked her fingers around the spoon handle. The soggy bust flew towards Galadriel's ear; her hand moved without haste, and intercepted it with six inches to go.

"I told you you could keep it", said Nerdanel.

Galadriel looked at the shapeless blob in her palm. "There would seem little point in debating the matter", she said, and scraped it off onto the table.

Nerdanel looked at her first sculpture on the rim of Galadriel's mug. "Is it just me", she said, "or is that getting brighter? - Ai, you wee sod!"

It almost seemed that an explosion had gone off in the cabin; there was a whoomph, both mugs of tea were flung to the floor, and the pigeon vanished out of the companionway doors almost too quickly for even Elvish eyes to follow. The storm of her wingbeats faded rapidly into the distance.

Nerdanel stood up dripping tea and tried to flap the worst of it off herself. "What has bitten her?", she said, staring after the pigeon.

Galadriel looked at the wreck of mug and sculpture on the floor.

"Oh, shit", she said quietly.

"I can always make another one", said Nerdanel.

"I think I would prefer it if you did not", said Galadriel.

"How am I to know all of your bird's destructive idiosyncrasies?" demanded Nerdanel.

"Of this one, at least, you are already aware", said Galadriel.

"I am not", Nerdanel retorted. "She is usually most proficient at not flying into the tea."

A heavy blow pounded into the boat from beneath. Through the hatch came a loud rumbling, growing rapidly to a deafening roar. As both Elves started for the companionway a dull boom punctuated the din. A wall of white water surged from the harbour entrance and raced towards the little ship. Galadriel slammed the hatch closed just as it reached them; water poured over the cabin top, and the tea things crashed to the forward end of the cabin as the ship stood almost on end. There was another crash as the kedge warp snapped and the broken end lashed back to slam into the hull. The ship pitched the opposite way, sending an avalanche of loose articles sternward along the cabin floor, more water poured over the bow and the ship heaved backward. The bow anchor warp tightened with a violent jerk, but held. Another wave came from astern, much smaller this time. The two Elves clung firmly onto the most convenient fixtures while the motion gradually subsided.

"Indeed you are", said Galadriel, opening the hatch and ascending the companionway. "You observed her practising this one not two hours ago."

"Galadriel", expostulated Nerdanel as she followed her out onto the wet deck. Galadriel was nowhere to be seen.

"Surely you have not forgotten already", her voice arose from an open stowage hatch. She climbed back into view, the coil of a warp over her shoulder. "Certainly you saw, for you laughed at the sight." She untied the coil and made one end fast to a stern cleat.

"Galadriel", said Nerdanel again, passing her hand over her eyes. But for answer there came only a splash. Nerdanel opened her eyes, to see only Galadriel's dress on the deck and the warp paying itself out as it trailed after her into an expanding circle of ripples.

Nerdanel gritted her teeth and restrained herself from kicking the dress into the water too. She stared around the little harbour.

In truth, not a great deal seemed to have happened. A good deal of the beach and the soil from the bottom reaches of the valley behind it had been washed into the sea, and the water was a brown soup, its surface strewn with flecks of foam, bits of grass and other debris. The wetness of the rock walls bore witness to the height the wave had reached in the harbour itself. But aside from this nothing of the scene had changed, and nothing at all that was visible gave Nerdanel any clue what had happened.

What was happening now was, nothing. Only the occasional ripple around the warp where it entered the water showed that Galadriel was still alive on the other end of it. Nerdanel seethed.

The ripples around the warp ceased.

A heavy coil of rope thrapped onto the deck. Galadriel rose from the water under the stern of the ship with her arms above her head. grasped the rail, and without pause in her upward motion pulled herself smoothly on board.

"I know one thing", said Nerdanel to her as she began to haul in the slack on the new kedge warp. "Between you and the shitehawk there is nothing to choose when it comes to being a pain in the arse."

"That is most unfair", said Galadriel. "It was she, not I, who put mud on your dress, and on mine too. Indeed, it was I who told her to take it off."

"I am not", said Nerdanel, "speaking of mud on dresses."

"Nor was I, until you raised the subject", said Galadriel. "You did not laugh at that."

"Nor did I at her blowing the place up", said Nerdanel. "Yet as a destructive idiosyncrasy that would now seem rather more relevant than flying through the tea, even had the tossing around not rendered the effects of that latter somewhat moot."

"Now you are being unfair again", said Galadriel. She reached inside the companionway and produced a knife, with which she trimmed the ragged end off the broken warp. A neat backsplice began to take shape under her flashing fingers. "You are much better at blowing the place up than she is, as we have seen. She did us a good turn to save us from the effects of it going off in the cabin."

"I?" said Nerdanel indignantly. "What have I..." Her face changed. "Oh, shit. I thought she had stayed away in fear of our reaction..."

"What d'you mean, stayed away?" came a soft voice from above. Nerdanel looked up. Sure enough, the mast was crowned with the familiar silhouette of the feathered oval with protruding beak. "How much did you put in the bloody thing, anyway? You should have wiped your finger, at least."

Nerdanel's mouth opened and shut as a succession of expressions passed across her face. "What?" she said at last.

"It was spewing hot neutrons like nobody's business", said the pigeon. "And it made a fucking excellent bang. You must have properly larded it."

A look of understanding began to dawn on Nerdanel's face, and she put her head in her hands. "Oh, dear", she said quietly. "What have I done..."

"You have saved me a lot of trouble", said Galadriel with a smile. "Now I do not have to devise a safe method of carrying out the experiment myself."

Nerdanel lowered her hands and looked at Galadriel, but she was entirely serious.

"Erm, we do happen to be trapped", put in the pigeon from the top of the mast. "Well, the ship is, anyway. The cliff has come down into the entrance, and it's full of rocks." As if in confirmation another splash sounded from the cleft at the end of the harbour as some metastable boulder finally attained a lower energy state, and a small wave rolled into the lagoon.

"I know", Galadriel told her. "We heard it start to collapse as soon as the shock wave arrived."

Galadriel returned the knife to its stowage and put both arms around Nerdanel. "Come on, my dear", she said. "We are all ship-shape on deck now, apart from the dinghy" (it was resting upside-down some way above the head of the beach) "and that we can retrieve at any time; it will take no harm where it is. But the cabin is still a mess, and neither of us had finished our tea."

Nerdanel gave a little laugh and kissed Galadriel. "Instant normality in a kettle", she said. "If only you and I had met sooner."

A snort arose from Galadriel as she turned to go below. "I think Mandos would have had a fit."

"I thought one of them might have done, at least", said Nerdanel, following. "I thought perhaps your prophecy of destruction had come to pass a few hundred years too soon."

Galadriel shook her head. "It is only Ulmo who knows we are here", she said, "and he at least has something between the ears. Though I suspect now we will begin to elude even his attention, at least for a time. He will have no reason to concern himself with this island, and much to concern him elsewhere." She set the kettle to boil while they cleared the wreckage of their previous tea.

Nerdanel looked dubious. "If I was Ulmo, I think I would be rather interested in finding out what the big bang was."

"He is thousands of miles away at the moment", said Galadriel, mopping tea off the floor. "By the time the sound reaches him it will be too attenuated to distinguish from a thousand other sounds of the sea."

"And they tell us he knows all that happens in the sea, anywhere", said Nerdanel. She picked up a box and began collecting the fragments of broken mugs.

"Ah, figures of speech", said Galadriel. "He will have noted our voyage, of course, since we were at sea for some time. But his attention is fixed on the exiles now, and he has none to spare for transient events far away."

"They are still crossing, then?" Nerdanel inquired. "I am surprised; their course would have been much shorter than ours." She picked up the remains of her sculpture. The soft clay had been battered beyond recognition; with a shrug, she added it to the shards in the box.

"They have not yet started", said Galadriel. "Other than that they float there is nothing to recommend a cygniform for an ocean voyage; nor have they with them any who are familiar with the arts of navigation or the handling of the ships. They are making their way north along the coast of Aman, and will cross the narrow northern seas to land near Morgoth's stronghold."

"Now I am even more glad of our swift departure", said Nerdanel. She moved to pick up a chart that had escaped from the rack and fallen on the floor; it resisted her pull, then peeled up slowly with a sticky noise. "Oh, yuck", she said, pulling a face. "This chart is soaked in milk."

"Which one is it?" Galadriel asked.

With the tips of her fingers Nerdanel peeled open the folds of the soggy object. "Alqualondë, South-Eastern Approaches, 1:7,500."

"Throw it away", said Galadriel with a sad half-smile. "It will not be needed again." The kettle began to whistle, and she got up to deal with it.

"I am surprised it was needed at all", said Nerdanel, trying to cram the mucky thing into the box without getting the muck on herself. "I did not see you use a chart once on the voyage."

"Who do you think did the surveys?" smiled Galadriel, filling the teapot. "Those charts are my original proofs, first off the plate."

Nerdanel took the kettle and soaked a cloth with some of the remaining hot water. "That was quite an undertaking."

Galadriel shrugged. "Someone had to do it. There are many who will map the land, but none for long years yet who would map the sea; and few navigate beyond familiar waters, but those swept into strange seas by storms have need of good charts."

"You do have exactly the ship for it", said Nerdanel. "It is sad to think of such a sea rover trapped in this little pond. I suppose that if we want to go anywhere now, we must build another ship in a harbour that is not blocked."

"There are none", said Galadriel. She threw the wet tea-towels into the sink and brought the fresh tea to the table. "The island is steep-to all the way around. But we have the means to unblock this harbour, just as we had the means to block it."

"No, no, no, no, no", said Nerdanel vigorously wringing out her own cloth. "I am not making any more explosive fusion devices. I have had quite enough of explosions to be going on with."

"Oh, no", said Galadriel. "Birdie and I will do it. We have now enough observations to confirm the theory; we can make them of any size and predictably fused, and to move rocks one at a time requires only very small ones indeed."

"You will not", said Nerdanel. "To excavate ourselves a home on land will be bad enough, but I have already agreed to that. We will not blow anything else up as well. We can still take ourselves from here to birdie's cavern, can we not? And from there to anywhere else in Arda? Then we shall do that. Why, indeed, would we not do that in any case? It would save much trouble."

"To return to a time or place which is not that from which we left is both difficult and dangerous", said Galadriel. "To go by motorcycle through a Vera world may be of less peril, if our world is in a well-defined time, but I know of none which include this island, still less a bridge to it. But if that is what you wish, then so shall we do. Times of safety do exist, and we need only wait for one."

"Then we shall do that", Nerdanel declared. "Thank you, Galadriel."

"Do not thank me", said Galadriel. "How often must I remind you? When we first met I told you my favours have two sides. You may yet come to wish we had not met at all."

"Yes, yes, you say that often, and always I think it strange to see your lips move while the speech emerges from your bottom", said Nerdanel, moving across to plonk herself half in Galadriel's lap and putting her arm around her. "Pour me some of that tea, and tell me why you had need of experimental data on fusion explosions even before a potential application existed."

"Oh, my love", said Galadriel, pulling the tea things closer towards her so that she could pour it while still leaning her head against Nerdanel's. "Birdie and I had both predicted it theoretically. To test the prediction is simply sound scientific method."

"Myself, that is one prediction I would have been happy to have left unconfirmed", said Nerdanel.

"As is so often the case, it is the peripheral observations which are of more interest than those of the ostensible purpose of the experiment", said Galadriel. "I had little doubt that an explosive would be possible. The unpleasant surprise was to find that it is so tractable... No, but it is", as Nerdanel began to speak. "You did condense a lot of matter into that tiny speck. There was a big lump stuck to the back of your fingernail which you did not notice; it nearly fell off in your tea. I am sorry, I should have lit the lamp." (Indeed she still had not done so, and now reached up to rectify the omission.) "Had it been a matter of only traces of it on the skin the explosion would have been survivable, and whoever caused it could have then found by experiment that it is trivial to adjust the size and fusing within very wide limits."

"You are worried that someone else will discover some lithium-bearing clay, and will use the phenomenon as a weapon?" said Nerdanel. "But who save you and I knows the form? Yavanna did not, until you taught her."

"No, there are none else who know the form", agreed Galadriel, "and certainly Melkor does not, of which we can be glad. But there are some who know it can be done. My mother, for one; I showed her, when I was very small, but she did not grasp it. And a few others who were small children of the same age as I. Those who know it can be done may in time come to find out how. You too, surely, must have shown it to a few at least."

"Indeed I did", said Nerdanel. "I showed my father, for one; I showed him how prettily they smash in the dark. But after that he thought them only baubles, and did not try to grasp the method - I believe he could not. And my mother, too; and a few other children. No more than five, I think, and all lost interest when they found they could not do it themselves."

"Your mother and father I had guessed", smiled Galadriel, "and while both of them told others they did so only in such vague terms as to convey no more than a formless impression of child's play. Try, please, to remember all the others; as children themselves, they may not have dismissed it quite so readily."

"Oh, dear", said Nerdanel. "I was so small that it is not easy to remember. Very early I learned that to show people led only to their annoyance and frustration when they found they could not do the same, and kept it for a private amusement."

"I do not need to know upon the instant", said Galadriel. "In time you will remember; and when you do, tell me."

"Better have it out at once", said Nerdanel, getting to her feet. She located a pencil and paper, took her seat again, and began to search her memory, at intervals jotting down a name. Galadriel put her feet up on the opposite bench, crossed her ankles, and resumed her interrupted contemplations.

There was a thud on the deck outside; the shape of the pigeon appeared in the hatchway, and she began to pick her way across the cabin, hopping from surface to surface. She made the ascent of Galadriel's reclining form, twitched her way underneath her hair and snuggled into the angle of her neck and shoulder, where she began to croon gently as Galadriel leant her head against her.

After a while Nerdanel passed Galadriel her notes.

"Thank you", said Galadriel, perusing the list. "Ah... that is reassuring. I know them all; they are all smiths - commanders, technicians, empiricists; no theoreticians, discoverers or poets. None who would understand."

"Cintiel is not a smith", said Nerdanel. "She is a musician."

"She is a musician of the smith mentality", smiled Galadriel.

"She is not", Nerdanel declared with emphasis. "I remember them from Tellus; they are shit. They moan and bleat, like sheep. I would not class their groaning as music at all."

"I do not mean them", said Galadriel. "Her music is all about assembling themes from a toolbox of musical primitives. Some of it is very good, but it is all ultimately synthetic."

"Ah, yes, that is true", said Nerdanel, smiling in her turn. "It reminds me of when I first began to experiment with the mechanisms for producing light sculptures; but where my interest soon returned to the forms, hers remained with the mechanisms. You are right; she is a commander, not a poet."

"Yes", said Galadriel. "It is only among my own acquaintances that there are those who need to be watched; and most of them I have traced by now, and they have forgotten, it seems, at least for the present."

"Oh, so that is why you are so quiet", said Nerdanel. "I was wondering. But what of those who never left Middle-earth? There must surely be some poets among them."

Galadriel shook her head, causing the pigeon to shuffle about on her shoulder. "They never saw the light of the Trees. We who were born under it and knew nothing else forget its influence too easily, perhaps. We have grown apart from those who remained; I wonder if we realise how much."

"In that case", said Nerdanel, "what of Ungoliant?"

Galadriel laughed. "Ungoliant is hoist with her own petard. No longer does she seek to devour light; already she fears it, and shuns even the light of the stars. When Arien begins to sail the skies her life will become a daily agony, and she will pass the remainder of her days in hiding, a shrivelled shadow of her former evil. She is powerless now."

"I want to blow her up", said the pigeon from beneath Galadriel's hair. "I want to deposit the energy of a neutron beam into her bodily fluids until they reach boiling point, and watch her legs straighten under the increasing pressure until her integument bursts. Actually, no. I will boil her legs first, one at a time, until they fall off, pop, pop, pop. And then I will boil her stomach contents to make her sick them up, and then I will burn her arse out, and generate steam in her thorax to push the contents of her body out through the hole with the pressure. Then what is left, the crows can have it. Eight eyes - should suit them down to the ground."

"Yes, but you are a vicious little get", said Galadriel, tickling the bird's crop. "You will have to restrain yourself. She is not out of the story yet; Tolkien could but guess what became of her, and he guessed wrong. Hers is not the fate of Horace."

"Does it matter?" said the pigeon. She was completely hidden beneath Galadriel's hair, and her voice emerged without apparent source. From Nerdanel's expression it was evident that she found the effect highly entertaining.

"Yes, birdie, it does", said Galadriel. "Do not worry. You will not lack for opportunities to blow up other spiders."

"Big ones?" said the pigeon.

"Very big", said Galadriel.

"Good", said the pigeon. "Because I've just had an idea for how to make them into rockets."

"Does it involve their intestines coming out of their arse?" inquired Galadriel cautiously.

"Oh, yes", said the pigeon, in a voice like a dog selling insurance.

At this point Nerdanel could contain herself no longer and collapsed in a fit of laughter.

"Eee, lass, what's wi' you?" said the pigeon. "Art cracked or what?"

"If she is cracked, birdie", said Galadriel, "I dread to think what you are."

"I am a pigeon", said the bird in satisfied tones.

We are a merry crew, are we not? - Galadriel x

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