LLYFR GALADRIEL -:-:- MIRAGE
SMOKE ON THE WATER
"Burn them", he said. "All of them."
An Elf stirred, and turned over in his sleep. Somewhere in his somnolent brain ran the thought: this is much warmer and cosier than camping on the freezing ground...
One arm crept out from beneath the blankets and spread itself across the outside of the bed.
After a while, it grasped the edge of the blankets, and in a series of jerks pulled them clear of his sleeping form, leaving only a nightshirt to cover him.
Dampness began to creep across the material from the armpits. He coughed.
He coughed again, more violently; he shook himself, awoke, and sat up in bed, brushing his hair out of his eyes. Phew, it was hot in here. And how come it was so light?
Another cough. Smoke. What? Oh, shit, it's bloody on fire... The fuck... He threw himself out of bed, crossed to the cabin door, and cautiously cracked it ajar. A tongue of flame whipped through the gap, searing his wrist; swearing, he slammed the door closed.
Flames blew past the porthole; he reached up and felt the inside of the roof... yes, the fire had not yet progressed far beyond the door. He grabbed his sword from the floor and began hacking furiously at the opposite wall, wishing he had an axe.
Something went thump outside and dense, foul smoke rolled in heavy billows underneath the door, choking him; a paroxysm of coughing drove the strength from his arms. With effort he tore a strip from the blanket, and... oh, shit, there's no water in here... pissed on it, frantically and messily, and tied it round his face; it was better than suffocating.
The door sagged on its hinges and flame rushed across the ceiling. In sudden panic he booted the scored and slashed wall with all his might; he yelled in pain as bones broke in his foot. But a fierce relief surged through him as through the hole he had made he saw smoke, indeed, but as yet no flame. Hopping clumsily, using the hole for purchase, he threw his weight backwards and wrenched mightily at the damaged board.
The trenails groaned and creaked, giving a little more with each heave, then lost their grip entirely; there was a crash of breaking wood as the board snapped at its lower end and he fell backwards on the floor beneath it. He yelled again as the heavy smoke pouring across the floor ignited, surrounding his head in a ball of flame; he struggled upright, and lurched towards the opening. He gasped at the comparatively smoke-free air hungrily through his makeshift mask as he began to push himself through the gap.
The crack of a breaking rope sounded overhead; he jerked back as a flaming tarred end swung within inches of his face, trailing black smoke. On the instant there followed a tremendous splintering groan and a heavy spar, swathed in blazing canvas, crashed to the deck right outside the hole in a splashing billow of raging fire.
He grabbed his sword again, and retreating as far as he could from the flames began once more to hack at the wall. Driven by the strength of desperation the sword pierced the heavy wood; he tugged it free, and a wisp of flame followed it out of the hole. Too late: the fire had surrounded him. Behind him, a draught had developed through the gap of the missing board and was drawing a gale of fire through the cabin. Another rending crash sounded from outside and the end of a burning spar speared through the roof in an eruption of sparks. Smoke billowed, then balled into flame. His sight began to fade, darkness creeping upon his circle of vision in the deoxygenated atmosphere. All strength departed from his muscles; his body sagged to the floor.
So this was it, then. Well, at least this way it probably would not hurt.
"What are you doing, Neil?"
Muzzily, he tried to force his heavy eyes upwards. Momentarily, the encroaching darkness lifted a fraction; as his blurred vision swam through a moment of focus, he caught the impression of a figure amid the flames; a figure so bright that the flames themselves by comparison seemed dark, calmly standing in complete unconcern amid the raging exothermy.
With an effort, he forced some sound from his throat, but failed to articulate the words. He tried again.
"Why... you... no' burning?"
Even in his current state he was aware that it was not the greatest speech in history.
The voice that replied sounded puzzled by such a question. "Why should I burn? That would be foolish."
"You... h'luc'na'n", he slurred, and collapsed.
The gentle voice seemed to come from a million miles away. "Oh, no. I am more real than anything you will ever see."
His fading senses caught the faintest suggestion of a change in the air, a brief hint of cool and calmness, then the blackness closed over all.
"Ai! My son! My son!" Nerdanel's shriek broke the stillness of the silent cabin; she sat bolt upright in her bed, staring into the darkness. "My..." It seemed that her head spun motionlessly for a shadow's thickness of a second; she frowned slightly, and put one hand to her brow. "What the...?" she muttered to herself.
"What is wrong?" came Galadriel's muffled voice from beneath the covers of her own berth.
"I... I am not sure", said Nerdanel. "My son was dying... I was certain. But now he... isn't dead..."
"You were dreaming", said Galadriel.
"Yes", said Nerdanel. "And I awoke... still dreaming. Or so it seemed. And yet it did not. I knew he was dying... and then I knew just as certainly that he was not. But now there is something... it is hard to describe. He is alive, I know; but it feels peculiar to be so sure, as if in some way I ought not to be... no, that is not right..."
"Would you like a cup of tea, while we talk about it?" said Galadriel.
"No, thank you", said Nerdanel, "...well, perhaps later." Bare feet padded across the cabin floor. "What I would like now is a cuddle", and she lifted the covers and settled herself in beside Galadriel. Galadriel slipped her arm around her, and they lay for a while unspeaking.
"I have had this fear ever since he was born", said Nerdanel eventually. "But always there came with it the intimation that I was wrong to fear: and yet this did not rouse any doubt. And the fear and its contradiction were inseparable; it resembled nothing so much as a superposition of states, but one somehow directly observable without collapsing it."
"That it was indeed", said Galadriel softly. "It is one of those matters of which Tolkien wrote contradictory tales, and among Tellurians the following that each attracts is of much the same strength."
"Now I know what it is to be the cat when the physicist opens the box", said Nerdanel. She sighed, and hugged Galadriel tightly.
"You are still troubled, my dear", said Galadriel presently. "Let it out."
Nerdanel sighed again. "It is that the superposition appears to have collapsed to a state which is itself partially indeterminate", she said. "Beyond that it exists in that part of phase space where my son lives, I cannot see. It is as if the tale has moved on without him, and he is... where? There is something... he escaped death; he fled, in some sense, where it could not find him, and in that refuge no other can find him either... not even I."
"Many people pass out of tales", said Galadriel. "The tale moves on; it goes its way, and they go theirs. You are one such yourself, you know; your tale ended before the Exile, but you did not."
"No", said Nerdanel, quietly. "I came back."
Galadriel gently stroked the back of Nerdanel's hair. "So will your son", she whispered, so low that even Nerdanel could barely hear. "He is waiting for you."
"No. You cannot mean in Mandos", said Nerdanel forcefully. "He is alive."
"I do not mean in Mandos", said Galadriel in the same scarcely audible whisper. "As with you, so it is with him: you have passed out of the tale, and you cannot return. When the ripples of your passing have passed below the noise threshold, and it knows you no more, then you will find him."
"And how do you know that, when I do not?" said Nerdanel.
A hard little beak nuzzled forcibly at the top of her head, making her jump. "Harg whizzle nurdle zeeble and ratchet", came the voice of the pigeon, bringing a giggle from Galadriel.
"Thank you for that, shitehawk", said Nerdanel.
"Ask a silly question, get a silly answer", returned the pigeon, unabashed. "Gala knows everything. You know that."
"And getting it out of her is like getting blood out of a stone", said Nerdanel, but all the same she hugged Galadriel as she said it. "Oh, my dear, you will help me to find him, won't you?"
"You are taking the word find too literally", said Galadriel. "Of course if you wish to roam the wilderness seeking him here, seeking him there, then so you may, but it will not avail you; and I will not help, for the quest is futile and I have my own path to follow. But when your son is past the time of peril our paths will cross, and you will be with me, Nerdanel the Wise."
"You are a sod of the first water, Galadriel, and I love you", said Nerdanel happily.
Galadriel did not reply; but slowly her eyes, unseen in the dark, filled with tears.
"Sir, I have dispatched a full patrol to the area with orders to send a runner at the first intimation of hostile activity."
"Well done, sergeant", said the captain. "But I still wish to know why Corporal Thalon here did not obey standing orders and send his partner to summon assistance."
"Sir, he is not competent to carry out such a task", said Corporal Thalon. "Or any other task, sir."
"Really?" The captain raised his eyebrows. "Who was his partner, sergeant?"
"Our precious protégé princeling, sir", said the sergeant. "He was to experience the realities of..."
The captain put one hand over his eyes and waved the other dismissively. "No, no, sergeant, you need not explain, thank you. Did he lose his shoe again, I wonder? Very well, corporal, it seems you did the only thing possible in the circumstances. Now what can you tell me of this wounded stranger?"
"Sir, he is not dead, sir", said Thalon. "He has been in a fire, sir. We are to look after him until his mother wakes him up, sir."
"Is that all?"
"Sir, she left us some spare bandages for him, sir."
"Who did? His mother?"
"She referred to his mother in the third person, sir."
"Yes", said the captain, "so who is she?"
Thalon swallowed. "She gave him to us, sir."
"Sir, she would not answer any questions."
"Oh, come on, man, you must be able to report something. She delivered him into your arms, did she not? What did she look like? You must know that, if nothing else."
"No, sir", said Thalon miserably. "She was really good at not being seen, sir."
"She was really good at not being seen", repeated the captain. "So good that she could place the weight of a full-grown Elf in your arms, and have you support that weight, without you noticing anything?"
"That is correct, sir", said Thalon.
The captain harrumphed. It was preposterous, but it was also clear that the poor fellow was convinced of its truth. "Recount the tale again, from the beginning, corporal", he said. "And try to avoid using the word sir as punctuation, would you? Sergeant, go and fetch one of the healers; we will see if they have discovered anything about him." The sergeant saluted, and marched out.
"Yessir... Er, it was absolutely quiet, sir. Faint breeze, rain on the canopy but not at ground level. Nothing moving at all, not even a mouse or an owl. I was cooking our rations. I heard footsteps: they sounded like someone making a little noise walking on purpose, to make sure they were heard. So I endeavoured to make myself inconspicuous while surveying as best I could the full circle. I saw nothing in any direction."
"And your partner did not notice... no, I suppose he wouldn't have done."
"Sir, you could feed him shit for his breakfast and he'd eat it and not notice."
"Hmph, yes, well, I dare say that is true. Go on, corporal."
"Well, then, sir... I was holding this Elf all wrapped in bandages. I just... felt this weight, and I looked down, and there he was, and I had no idea how. He was obviously in a really bad way; I wasn't sure at first if he was dead or not. I laid him down by the fire; and then she spoke, but I still couldn't see her no matter how I looked. Wherever I looked her voice was coming from somewhere else, and when I looked there she was somewhere else again. And she would not answer anything I asked her. She just told me that he was not dead, only badly burnt, and he would heal, and to look after him until his mother woke him up. And then I heard the footsteps going away again, and, well, that was it, sir."
"The bandages, where do they come in?"
"While she was talking, I think, sir. She put the basket by his head while I was looking for her somewhere else, sir."
"And you found no traces afterwards, I suppose?"
"No, sir. I could not search beyond sight of the bivouac, of course, but I didn't find even a disturbed leaf, sir. And there was no smell of any fire other than our own, and no sound beyond the sounds of the forest and not much of them, sir. At any time."
"And that was other than what you had expected."
"Yes, sir. His burns were fresh - very fresh, and they had been treated without delay. I would say he had been taken from the fire, treated, bandaged, and brought to us, all within fifteen minutes, sir. But there was definitely no fire of any kind within miles of us, sir."
"I see. And then?"
"Sir, I decided that the situation should be investigated, but that encumbered as I was I could not discover anything further myself, and to attempt it would put those for whom I was responsible at risk. So I returned immediately to report. Sir."
"And you had seen nothing of note at any time before this on your patrol?"
"One dead orc, sir; but a long-cleaned skeleton, and wild beasts had taken some of the bones. And that was on the first day of the patrol, at the foot of the mountains beyond the upper stream. That was all, sir."
"Hmph, well, I do not think that can have... Ah, sergeant, thank you; and who is this?"
The sergeant saluted. "Lothiel, sir. Senior nurse, sir."
"Very good. Well, Lothiel, what can you tell us of this stranger in your care?"
"Third degree burns to his head, hands, arms, and much of his upper body; lesser burns to the lower legs. Multiple metatarsal fractures, left side; suspected lung damage from smoke inhalation; lacerated palms; sundry cuts, grazes and contusions. He is lucky to be alive; lucky that someone treated him so swiftly and so skilfully. He will heal, in time, but it will be a long and slow recovery."
"Well, that is something, at least. But I am interested more in him as a person, than as a medical case. When you were examining him, did you find anything of a personal nature?"
"There was a message, captain, with the medical supplies." She pulled a large dock leaf from the folds of her dress and handed it to the captain. "Apart from that he has nothing, beyond what is left of his trousers - and nothing in the pockets."
The captain was frowning at the dock leaf from various different angles, but not finding any that had any advantage.
"You have to hold it up to a light, captain", explained Lothiel.
"Hmph, ah, thank you." He lit the candlestick on his desk and held the leaf spread between his face and the flame; the message came to life, tiny specks of light shining through minute pinholes outlining a neat and elegant script.
He has been through fire; but he will live, if you tend him. Tend him well, for he will be a long time in healing. And when he has healed, he will sleep. Do not be dismayed that he does not wake; he is awaiting the touch of his mother's hand to wake him.
Know, also, that there is no threat to your borders or your lands. The eyes of the evil of this age will be turned away from you, and will not turn your way if you do nothing to draw their gaze. Keep yourselves within your borders, and do not expand them; go not to war, and war will not come to you.
With these stores you will find seeds of the plants of which the burn salve is made; by this salve all burns may be healed, leaving no scar. Take, while still in bud, three blossoms of...
The remainder of the message consisted entirely of detailed medical material; all combat personnel, of course, knew basic field medicine, but this was written for specialists in the healing arts. The captain skimmed it briefly. "Lothiel, what is your opinion of the medical information in this?"
"In my opinion, captain, whoever wrote that could probably cure a corpse of being dead. And very nearly has done, looking at the condition of this patient. There are none here with the skill to have saved him from dying of those burns. That knowledge would reward us a thousand times for tending him, if reward we needed... I must ask for that back, captain", she added, indicating the leaf.
"No, this I must keep, for others will need to see it", said the captain. "But by all means make a copy of it." He got up, with a gesture inviting Lothiel to make use of his desk, chair and writing materials. "In fact, make two; I shall want to keep one myself."
"I will, thank you", she said, taking his place at the desk.
The captain leaned against the wall. "Does it not strike you as odd, Lothiel, that such an important message should be written in so well hidden a form? How, if you had not found this, would you have been able to treat your patient as he apparently needs?"
Lothiel shrugged, without looking up. "I found it straight away, captain."
"Then your eyes are far better than mine", said the captain.
She shrugged again. "It caught the light as I was unwrapping it, and there it was."
The captain tapped his fingers against the back of his other hand. "Sergeant?"
"Remind me of the routes of the patrols we have out at the moment."
"Sir." The sergeant pulled a notebook from his pocket and thumbed through it; he handed it to the captain open at a neat sketch map showing the patrol routes, marked to indicate the patrols' expected daily progress. "There you are, sir."
"Ah, very good." The captain studied the map with pursed lips. "Hmph. Be sure to bring me the reports of patrols three and four the moment they come in, sergeant. Though I do not expect them to have found anything." He handed the book back.
Lothiel began on the second copy; the captain picked the first off the desk and began re-reading the message. "Corporal. Describe to me your feelings when this strange event took place."
"My feelings, sir?"
"Yes. Did you, for instance, feel any fear? Think it no shame, but tell me."
"No, sir. I was bewildered, sir; but I felt no fear. Rather, I felt there was nothing to fear. That there could be nothing to fear. Although..." He hesitated.
"Go on", said the captain gently.
"If I did not do as she wanted, something terrible would happen. Something... something blank, I can't put it any better than that, sir. It just stopped. I knew that. But it did not cross my mind to fear it. I knew that it would not happen if I did my best for this burnt chap, sir, and I was going to do my best for him, so there was no need to worry. Sir."
"You did not feel that you were being threatened in any way?"
"Oh, no, sir, quite the opposite. She wanted to make sure that whatever it was didn't happen. That was the whole point, sir."
"And your feeling of bewilderment. Was that simple ordinary bewilderment, or was there something unusual about it?"
"Nothing at all, sir. It was just what anyone would feel with this really weird thing happening, sir."
The captain looked hard at the corporal. Then he smiled. "Thank you, corporal. That is what I wanted to hear. You are confined to barracks until further notice. You are not under punishment; I merely wish to be sure that I can find you without delay, should others need to ask you the same questions themselves."
"Whoever did this... Oh, thank you, Lothiel." She had finished her second copy and stood up to give his seat back to the captain. He settled himself into it and sat back. "Whoever did this, corporal, sergeant, has us in the palm of their hand, if they so wish. Someone who can come and go at will, who can evade all detection in the most remarkable way, and, mark you, who knows every detail of what we may do. Chose the one patrol that was so encumbered by one useless member that there would be no choice but to bring him in straight away. At the one point on its route where no others would cross their path as they returned. Knows even minutiae like the precise angle at which someone will unwrap a package, so the life-saving information on the wrapper will not be missed. Were they to wish us ill we would be utterly helpless. I think, I hope, we can believe they do not. Had such a great power any intent to evil I doubt very much that Corporal Thalion could have remained entirely unaware, for the combination is one that leaves its mark on all its works. But I am only a captain, and the matter is grave; there are others who will need to speak to the corporal in person to satisfy themselves that the power he encountered was of good intent."
"Oh, the military mind", sighed Lothiel, rolling her eyes.
"Hmmm?" The captain raised his eyebrows at her.
"She is protecting us, captain", said Lothiel. "Can you not see that? She wants no harm to come to this patient; we are to be left in peace to care for him. Read the message again", and she gestured at her copy. "There is no threat to your borders or your lands; the eyes of the evil of this age will be turned away from you... Read between the lines. She will keep us free from strife, as long as we do not betray her protection by seeking or making war ourselves. She has us in the palm of her hand? Indeed she has, captain, and we may be glad of it, that I will tell you for nothing."
"You may well be right. I think you probably are", said the captain, "but I wish I had your certainty. The whole thing could be an elaborate decoy..."
"That would make no sense", Lothiel cut in. "A decoy to what purpose? To confound our attempts at preparation? You have explained yourself the refutation of such thinking. She knows what we are going to do better than we do ourselves. It would make no difference did we prepare or not, for she would know our plans before we did. She can run rings around us. Were she to wish us harm, harm would befall, and we would not even see it coming. All that is true, but you focus on the threat and not on its negation. Do you not see what she is doing? She is putting on a show to tell us we have nothing to fear. She is showing us what she could do, to make sure that we realise she does not intend to do it, for if she did she would simply do, and not bother to show. She is giving us a gift, captain. That power which you fear she is turning to our protection, not to our harm."
"As I say, I am inclined to agree with you", said the captain. "But as a soldier I am obliged to look at the matter from all sides."
"As a medic, I can see that all sides are one", returned Lothiel. "Whoever wrote those notes is a preserver, not a destroyer; and a very dedicated one, too. The thought behind them is beautiful. It is the mind of one who detests war, and who loves to protect and heal."
"Ye-e-es. If she is so great a healer", said the captain, "why does she not look after this chap herself, instead of dumping him on us?" One hand strayed to the dock leaf, and he began toying with it absently.
"I do not know", said Lothiel sharply. "Does it matter? No. Obviously it does not. She has taken care that we know what we do need to know, the matters that concern our own affairs. Of that which concerns her affairs she has told us nothing at all. Who is she? We have no idea even of that. No more do we know who the patient is. We do not know because we have no need to know; what, indeed, would be the difference if we did? We would care for him in any case, whether we knew why he was here or not. That is her concern; ours is to care for him, knowing that we are under her care in our turn."
The shadow of the leaf fell across the handwritten copy, rays of light through the pinholes casting highlights on the copied letters. The captain stared at it.
The highlighted letters formed both words, and a shape. The words were need to know; the shape a grin, a nose, and a pair of eyes, one winking.
What are the odds? he thought. She knows. She must know we will accept the situation eventually. Why fight it?
Circular argument, came another thought.
Makes no difference, the first set of neurons replied.
Abruptly, he looked up, and smiled. "Thank you, Lothiel. You are right. And you, too, I may need to put your persuasive argument to others, so please do not be hard to find."
"I have a patient to look after, captain", said Lothiel with a twitch of her lips.
The difference in water level was considerable. On one side, the sea washed against the jumble of boulders that had fallen from the cliff to block the harbour entrance; on the other, the waters of the harbour itself, fed by the stream that had carved it and impounded by the accidental dam, were several metres higher, having gradually risen until they reached a level at which the dam was sufficiently porous to allow them to trickle through at the same rate that the stream brought replenishment.
Galadriel was wandering around on the top of the dam, a basket slung round her neck and a reel of what seemed to be some almost invisibly fine thread over her arm. Every now and then she would take from the basket some tiny object no bigger than a grain of sand and a pebble neatly split in half and hollowed, place the grain in the hollow of the pebble, clamp the pebble closed around the thread and drop it carefully down a gap in the pile of boulders. Down some cracks she would drop single pebbles, down others a string of them, clamped to the thread at precise and regular intervals. Nerdanel sat on one of the boulders on the harbour side, holding the painter of the dinghy and saying "plib" every time Galadriel dropped a pebble.
"They are not all landing in the water", Galadriel pointed out. "Some of them are going click."
"Plib is good enough for me", said Nerdanel.
The plibbing finished, Galadriel sat in the stern of the dinghy, paying out thread from the reel on her arm while Nerdanel rowed them back to the ship. They climbed on board; Galadriel stood at the stern of the ship facing the harbour entrance, pinched off the thread from the reel and held the end high in the air.
"Do you want to do the honours, or shall I?" she asked Nerdanel.
"I would not dream of depriving you of the privilege", Nerdanel replied.
There was a tearing crack as the thread flashed for an instant into a line of brilliant light stretching across the harbour, followed immediately by the most peculiar noise from the chasm of the entrance. It was as if a ship of the line had tried to fire a broadside not knowing that some joker had removed the shot from all the guns and replaced it with giant party squeakers. Waves sloshed around the corner of the entrance and spread out into the harbour; the ship began slowly to drift towards the entrance, to be brought up as the anchor lines became taut, and the level of the water on the rocky sides of the little cove was dropping perceptibly. As the echoes died away the rush of a spate of water could be heard sounding between the cliffs, accompanied by the pigeon cooing from the top of the mast ("Ooo oooo-oo oo oo-oo oooo...").
"Well, you have done something, anyway", Nerdanel remarked.
"Yes", said Galadriel. She put the reel down on the deck, where the remaining thread ran off in a trickle of water, hauled the dinghy on board and made it fast on deck. She opened a hatch cover and began lifting out sailbags.
"What are you up to?" said Nerdanel.
"In these bags, there are large pieces of cloth, called sails", said Galadriel slowly. "I am going to tie them on to these big wooden poles, and then they will make the ship go."
Nerdanel wet her fingers in the puddle of ex-thread and flicked drops of water at Galadriel. "You are not going to inspect the breach first, at least?"
"What would be the point?" said Galadriel. "We shall be seeing it soon enough."
Nerdanel raised her eyes to the pigeon on the top of the mast. "She's off again", she said to the bird.
"She's never on", said the pigeon.
"Ganging up on me again, the pair of you", said Galadriel.
"Sometimes", said Nerdanel, "it is necessary. After all, you are forgetting something."
Galadriel raised an eyebrow quizzically.
"Tea", said Nerdanel. "We can't go blowing dams up and then not have a cup of tea."
"I was leaving that until we are under way", said Galadriel. "But by all means put the kettle on now if you want to."
"Ah", said the pigeon, who had just remembered something herself. "I had better get you some more milk."
"Thank you, birdie", said Nerdanel as she turned to go below. The pigeon launched herself off the top of the mast, and within a few wingbeats had disappeared.
Nerdanel pottered about the cabin sorting out the tea, listening to the miscellaneous thumping noises that sounded through the deck as Galadriel bent the sails. The milk churn, shining and scrubbed in the hoops that held it upright on its plinth by the reactor, presently began to emit metallic squirting sounds, gradually changing tone as the level slowly rose. After a while the thumping noises on deck ceased, and the sides of the harbour began to drift gently past the portholes.
Nerdanel came on deck to see Galadriel swinging an anchor around her head and sending it flying towards the harbour entrance. The ship slipped towards the crack in the rock as she hauled on the warp. As the channel narrowed it became apparent that the levels had not quite yet equalised; there was a trace of current still flowing out of the harbour, and in the chasm itself the ship needed only to be fended off from the rock walls.
From the landward cliff projected still the remains of the dam. On the seaward side was only rippled water. The precisely timed, sized and placed charges had set up trains of shock waves at frequencies matched to the dimensions of individual rocks, shattering them to fine debris which the racing water had speedily swept out to sea. The final trace of the outflow, finding itself obstructed by the ship as it slipped through the channel with no more than a metre of clearance, picked up a little speed to help the ship out into the ocean. The murk of the dispersing silt cloud was spreading out from the coast like a mushroom. Galadriel began to hoist sail, and slowly the ship gathered way as the first canvas spread.
The whistling of the kettle called Nerdanel below, to find the pigeon sitting on top of the newly-filled milk churn looking very, very pleased with herself.
"Up the cow's arse", said the pigeon. "Up the fuckin' cow's arse. That one's got to be worth a thousand points."
"What have you been up to, you wee rascal?" Nerdanel inquired. The sound of the water running past the hull could now be heard, and a gentle motion was making itself felt.
"Farmer baiting", said the pigeon smugly. "He totally lost it. It was a cracker."
"When he has so kindly supplied us with all this milk?" said Nerdanel with a grin. "That is not very nice."
"He's not very nice", said the pigeon. "He's a cunt. He shoots pigeons. So it's fair game. You should see what I did to his gun."
"What, since I obviously have to ask", said Nerdanel, "did you do to his gun?"
"Shat down it", said the pigeon proudly. "And the next day he had it in his car and he parked near a hospital and their radiation monitoring went loopy. For the next month he could hardly go for a shit without someone standing there with a Geiger counter. And of course there were the cartridges as well."
"You had shat on them too, I take it", said Nerdanel.
"I shat in the powder in the factory", said the pigeon. "It was brilliant. All the gun shops in the country got shut down while they tried to trace it and all their stock got seized and half the fuckers never re-opened. It was ace."
"Oh, very good", said Nerdanel. She started up the companionway, carrying two mugs of tea and followed by the pigeon; one mug she handed to Galadriel, who was standing by the helm watching the cliffs of the island slide past to starboard. "But what, then - and I realise I may not wish to hear the answer - was up the cow's arse?"
"I see someone has been up to their tricks again", smiled Galadriel as she took the first sip of her tea.
"Brand spanking new fucking iphone", said the pigeon. "He threw an eppy and whanged it, and it bounced off the wall and went straight up a cow's arse. Best one yet. The time he dropped one in a tank of cow shit and then fell in himself trying to get it out was pretty good, but this one beat it I reckon."
This had both Elves inelegantly spluttering and giggling. "How many is that now?" Galadriel asked.
"Ten, I reckon", said the pigeon. "Eleven if you count the test engineer's one that caught fire, but that was just a happy coincidence and nothing to do with me."
"I bet", said Nerdanel.
"No, straight up", said the pigeon. "Pure fluke. There's no challenge in setting fire to them, they go up like firecrackers. All that lithium."
"Riiight", said Nerdanel. "But what about all the others? What did you do to them?"
"Oh, that's simple", said the pigeon. "He's got this automatic milking machine, well, he's on about the third warranty replacement one now. And neither he nor any of the engineers can figure out why no matter what they try and do, every so often the cow in stall 45 gives no milk. Different cows, different orientations, different whole new machines, and it keeps on happening. So he connects to the machine with his phone to check the milking records and he sees it's happened again and he loses his temper and takes it out on the phone. The fun is to see what mad thing he'll do to his phone next."
Galadriel and Nerdanel looked at each other, shaking their heads.
"'S fair game, like I said. He shoots pigeons", said the bird. "If we're going to be pinching milk might as well pinch it off some cunt who deserves it."
"All the same, I shall be happier when we are back to getting it in the normal way", Nerdanel said. "Not that I wish to spoil your amusement, birdie, but our own milk does taste nicer."
"Bleh. Horrible stuff, wherever it comes from", said the pigeon.
The north-westerly breeze was fresher now, and the motion more noticeable; the ship had moved out of the lee of the island and was now feeling the touch of the thousands of miles of open ocean to the west. Galadriel altered course, bringing the ship hard on the wind, and sheeted the sails in close. Straight away the breeze seemed to gain in strength, and the ship's motion changed, becoming livelier and shorter, bounding tautly through the waves.
"Ah, this feels good", said Nerdanel.
Galadriel smiled. "You are getting the taste for sailing, as well as for tea, then", she said.
"I suppose I am", said Nerdanel. "After being still for so long in harbour, it is good to feel the ship moving again."
She glanced at her mug. It was empty; she ducked briefly into the cabin, to reappear with the teapot and milk. The two arranged themselves on the deck, leaning against each other and the foot of the mainmast, fresh mugs of tea to hand and the teapot sheltered in the lee of their bodies from the fresh breeze that blew into their faces over the bow, carrying with it the occasional misting of spray.
"And we never did get our own cow", mused Nerdanel. "Or excavate a dwelling on shore."
"She would not yet have given us milk, even if we had", said Galadriel.
Nerdanel looked at her. "You knew all along, didn't you."
"No", said Galadriel. "But I suspected, and all the more so as time went on."
"Only suspected?" said Nerdanel with a grin.
"Randomness", shrugged Galadriel. "Intrinsically unpredictable... I could feel the probabilities squirming and changing, but no stable solutions ever emerged. There was nothing for it but to wait, and then react."
"Ah... another trapped flaw from anisentropic compression and re-expansion, yes? And it was at the point where the vagueness of Tolkien's writing created a region of indeterminacy that the wavefunction was exposed to observation, and collapsed", Nerdanel surmised.
"It collapsed... oddly", said Galadriel. "It collapsed to a solution which is technically consistent with Tolkien's writings now, but may not be so in future, depending on how other strands become woven in the volume of phase space available to them. It is that uncertainty which allows the solution to exist. But by the same token, the collapse to that metastable solution allows the uncertainty to exist. So..."
Nerdanel broke in with a groan. "No, no, I see it clearly. It has to fall off the hump in just the right direction otherwise the wheels come off, or something functionally equivalent to that. So it is rather important that it does."
"It will do", said Galadriel.
"...Says she with one hundred per cent confidence."
"I am Galadriel."
Nerdanel raised her face to the breeze and lifted her hair with one hand, feeling the cool air blowing through it on one side and the contrasting warmth of Galadriel on the other. She leaned her head against Galadriel's and gazed at the stars for a while in silence.
"Of course, what we have not considered", she said eventually, "is the probability of collapse to such a metastable circular state in the first place", and her arm crept around Galadriel's waist.
"This is true", Galadriel agreed.
"I remember something birdie said when we first arrived at the island", Nerdanel murmured, and her arm tightened around Galadriel. "Something about pushing the fuckin' limits, I think it was..."
"She does have a tendency to be rather unrefined, my love, does she not", said Galadriel softly, putting her own arm around Nerdanel to hug her in return.