The Sweary Nuclear Pigeons present...


Tricks of the Light



Nerdanel rolled over sleepily and half-opened one eye. Her bunk rocked gently beneath her as the little ship slipped over the smooth swells. She could hear Galadriel stirring in her own berth, and considered getting up; but her bunk was nice and cosy, and really she was hardly awake in any case. She let herself drift off again for another forty winks.

Another ship; another bunk; another half-awakening. Somewhere in the Elf's 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 greying sight upwards. His oxygen-starved brain was rapidly failing, and groped vaguely at the notion that somehow he was not alone; someone was watching him, a serene white figure calmly standing in complete unconcern amid the raging exothermy.

The concept hallucination flickered faintly across a few gasping neurons.

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 consciousness fled the raging heat and smoke into a moment of cool, fresh stillness, and blanked.

"Ai!" The piercing shriek cut suddenly across the peaceful cabin as Nerdanel crashed into wakefulness amid the smell of smoke. There was a heavy thump from within her berth, the door flew open and she burst out into the main cabin, took two paces and jerked herself to an abrupt halt, one hand going to her forehead as she stilled herself.

"Oh... your fucking toast", she sighed.

Galadriel looked at her with one eyebrow smilingly raised, waving a blackened slice in her hand. "I like it crunchy, you know that", she said. She crunched off a large bite. "Wmf mmf?" she mumbled with her mouth full, gesturing from the toast rack to Nerdanel and spraying her with carbonised crumbs.

"Oh, you muckpot", spluttered Nerdanel, flapping the crumbs off herself. "No, thank you. I like some bread in the middle of mine", and she began cutting some fresh slices off the loaf; Galadriel poured some tea into her waiting mug. She set the bread to toast, flopped into the seat opposite, put her feet up on Galadriel's lap and leaned back, brushing her hair clear of her face.

"Well", she said eventually.

"Bucket", Galadriel replied.

"Daftie", said Nerdanel with a smile.

"Love", said Galadriel, smiling in return. "...Have a care for your toast."

Nerdanel leaned far over to one side, supporting herself with one arm against the floor while she turned her toast at the extreme stretch of the other. Thus she avoided the need to actually stand up, but any saving of effort tended toward the indiscernible.

"Thank you", she said.

It spoils a good breakfast to waste it on attempting thoughtful and coherent conversation. Tea and toast at leisure, with the occasional caress or inconsequential remark, are a much better plan. At this point in time, the world held only two people who had reached that exact conclusion empirically, but already they knew its value well.

And sometimes, too, thoughtfulness and coherence are no more a requirement for the efficient exchange of information than they are for a good breakfast.

After a while it seemed to Nerdanel that their relative seating positions constituted an excessive degree of obstruction to the "caress" aspect. She shifted herself to Galadriel's side, put her arm around her and laid her head on her shoulder.

"It is quite remarkable, and also extremely strange", she said, with a happy sigh. "Years of fear and fret, and some formless waking vision of I know not what horror. Gone in an instant, as if they had never been, vanished at the touch of someone spitting toast on me."

"Non-integrable Vanatarna polynomials are made of toast", said Galadriel. "Surely you knew that?"

"Strangely, no, I did not", Nerdanel replied. "But perhaps I should have realised the possibility, since I had never encountered such a strict definition of "crunchy" until I fell through one myself. Oh, my love", and she smiled up at Galadriel and drew her closer.

"I love you too, Nerdanel, you wonderful and unique love", said Galadriel. "Indeed, you are quite remarkable, and also extremely strange."

" 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."

"Who did?"

"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?"

"Yes, sir", said Thalon. "I cannot explain, I do not understand, but that is what happened, sir."

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; and he will be a long time in sleeping. 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 firm north-westerly breeze flowed smoothly across the taut sails, flinging sternwards the occasional handful of spray that burst above the port bow as the little ship cleaved smoothly through the waters chuckling and swirling under the forefoot and along the flanks of the vessel. Carried tautly at the point of balance between the forces of wind and water, full working canvas in harmony with keel and hull, the motion of the ship seemed to have taken on a new purposefulness, as if wood and canvas themselves were responding directly to the captain's will.

The captain herself was hauling in a handful of sheet here and letting a handful out there, finalising her adjustments to the trim of the sails. The decision of the ship's pigeon to stand on her head, therefore, led to much flapping and scrambling to keep station as she bent and straightened; but not to reconsideration. The first mate emerged from the companionway with the inevitable tray of tea. She set it down in a safe corner of the deck, faced into the breeze and drew in a luxuriating lungful.

"This is rather fine, it has to be said", she declared. "Though I doubt I will ever come to emulate your immoderate degree of enthusiasm for more strenuous conditions. It is not like tea."

"Indeed it is not", Galadriel agreed. "Attaching sails to a liquid is not straightforward, and keeping it from dispersing in the surrounding ocean even less so."

"And similarly", said Nerdanel, "it is a little impractical to attempt to drink a ship."

"...There remains, though, one thing which I find I do need to ask", she continued after a while. "Our mode of progress has become more purposeful than pottering, and our course has acquired a distinctly northerly trend. Yet ponder as I might, still the reason eludes me. And it seems likely that the missing clue is Tellurian in origin, in which case its continued ineluctability is pretty much assured."

"You are quite right, my dear", Galadriel said. "It is simply a matter of one awkwardly-placed word in the writings of Tolkien, and indeed it would be of negligible account were it not for the entropy fault we encountered at the little bridge.

Dangerous times, and full of sad confusion. But so, in the end, it had to be... Galadriel x

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