The Sweary Nuclear Pigeons present...





The window casement jerked outwards half an inch, stuck, shook a bit, then flew wide open under the impact of a well-judged blow. A slim, fair hand appeared in the opening, secured the hasp, vanished again for a few seconds, then reappeared holding a coil of Cat5e and threw it onto the lawn outside. Nothing happened for a minute or two, then the greatest Lady of the Noldor appeared round the corner of the cottage and stepped down onto the lawn. She picked up the free end of the cable and plugged it into the laptop which she held in her other hand. Behind her followed the second greatest such Lady, carrying a tray bearing the inevitable teapot, milk and mugs, which she set down on the ground.

Galadriel switched on the laptop and set it down next to the tray while it booted. "Rock and roll!" she exclaimed, grabbing Nerdanel by the hand and swinging her round and round in a celebratory jig. There was a triumphant fire in her eyes that would have induced instant incontinence in a fat hairy sheepshagger had there been one there to see.

"Oh, I am sure, if you say so", said Nerdanel. "Stone and scone, certainly, at the least. But bread and minerals of themselves do not a complete weapons system make. There is the matter of delivery. Would I be right in thinking that that peculiar machine of yours can supply the deficiency?"

Galadriel sat herself down on the grass and leaned back against the bushes that grew on the edge of the lawn beneath the window, crossing her legs at the ankles with a satisfied smile on her face. It was the pigeon who replied, looking up from the lump of plutonium oxide she was pecking at on the corner of the tray. "It should be able to", she said. "Only it might need a bit of jiggering about because we've never tried it on images before. Veras only use text, you know, and for most of them even that's a struggle. It's the same principle, so it ought to work, though; thing is how much of an arseache it's going to be hooking up a video interface to the reality engine. Maybe if we make the projector run in inverse time that'll do it... what d'you reckon, Gala?"

"Inverse causality, I think, rather than inverse time", said Galadriel thoughtfully. "The two are not entirely equivalent. But if we confine ourselves to sufficiently circumscribed regions we can define a transformation to map the one to the other with accuracy enough to achieve the same effect. We will not have the real-time visual feedback, but I dare say we can manage without that."

Nerdanel pulled a face. "You will need to handle at least third-order terms in the expansion, and possibly fourth", she said. "At least if you intend to cover more than a few seconds at once. That class of functions is notoriously messy."

"A few seconds at once will probably suffice for our purposes", said Galadriel. "These moving pictures rarely hold the same scene for more than a second or two. And to begin, I have a test case in mind for the proof of concept that is flat enough to need only first-order terms but will still be a good test of robustness."

"Aha", said Nerdanel with a suppressed grin. "I wonder why that could be?"

Galadriel put her tongue out at Nerdanel. "It will take some time for the test case to arrive", she said. "Let us look over the code together while we wait for it. The mathematics will, I think, be of great interest to you." She picked up the laptop and began to download a torrent; Nerdanel sat herself down in Galadriel's lap.

"Oof", grunted Galadriel.

"I love you too", said Nerdanel.

"You are in the way", Galadriel pointed out. "It is not easy to operate the machine with a great lump of elf on my lap."

"Lump yourself. If you sat on my lap instead then I would not be able to even see the machine", retorted Nerdanel.

"If you sat next to me rather than on top of me, then we could both see the machine without any problem", said Galadriel. "Might I suggest that you get off me and pour us the tea?"

"Oh, indeed, the tea", said Nerdanel, rolling off Galadriel and busying herself with the tray; Galadriel pointedly settled the laptop in her vacated lap. Nerdanel handed her a cup of tea and then sat down by her side, putting her arm around Galadriel's shoulders and snuggling up against her. "There", said Galadriel. "That is much more comfortable for both of us."

"All three of us", said the pigeon, crashing down into the valley where their legs met in her favoured "inelastic collisions are less effort than airbraking" style and flicking her wings into place over her back. She rummaged briefly in her breast feathers and gave a few quiet croons.

"Oh for goodness' sake", muttered Galadriel, but she put her own arm round Nerdanel's shoulders in turn, and tickled the pigeon under the crop with her other hand. "Do I look like a cushion?"

"No, but you act like one", said Nerdanel. "And very well too, may I add."

"With you around, I have little choice", said Galadriel.

"You have the choice to be the cushion or to be the whole seat. I think that is quite a big choice", said Nerdanel. "Now are we going to look at this code or not?"

Nerdanel was not, of course, familiar with the programming of electronic computers. She was, however, a consummate mathematician, particularly in areas connected with abstract geometries; the same fundamental interest in forms and their analysis, synthesis and representation that underlay her talent for sculpture naturally found another outlet in a comparable mathematical talent, and for each interest she obtained considerable inspiration from the other. She had produced several abstract pieces which were based on the projection of complex higher-dimensional functions onto a three-dimensional volume, and which were remarkable for the clarity with which they conveyed the nature of the higher-dimensional form to a three-dimensional mind; only Nerdanel had the talent to produce a really convincing representation of a Klein bottle. Moreover, the instruments she had devised for producing "light sculptures" were themselves essentially programmable computers. Assemblies of log and antilog cams carved by hand with stunning precision, variable-ratio lever drives and adjustable stops were driven by the falling of water from a cistern upon a small waterwheel to move mirrors that deflected beams of light through a smoke-filled volume to produce shimmering, flowing veils of fascinating beauty, their forms defined by the selection and placement of cams and the adjustment of stops and ratios to generate the desired function; her later creations were even self-modifying. Since Galadriel had long ago coded a front end to display and edit source using the scripts, formats and symbology familiar to Elves - and much of Elvish mathematical symbology had originated with Nerdanel's own work - Nerdanel found no difficulty in understanding what was little more than a new application of knowledge with which she was already thoroughly at home, and as Galadriel had predicted she did indeed find it intensely interesting.

Galadriel's torrent turned out to be somewhat slow to download, and the time spent waiting for it gave Nerdanel ample opportunity not only to analyse the algorithms but to discuss with Galadriel the details of what she was planning to do and devise some very elegant shortcuts for doing it. She discovered that by back-propagating the output rather than instantiating it separately it was possible to eliminate many of the more awkward terms altogether, and Galadriel in turn, comparing the two strategies, concluded that back-propagation would in fact give a result that was both more effective and more entertaining. Modification of the output projector was no longer necessary; rather, with a few "hints" represented in textual form to prevent loss of cohesion at discontinuities, it was possible to merge Galadriel's proposed strand into the original in much the same way as viral genetic material is merged with that of the host cell, and with much the same kind of result.

Nerdanel, accordingly, busied herself with constructing the "hints", which she implemented as filters that would derive the necessary parameters from analysis of their own input, while Galadriel searched youtube for materials from which to assemble her strand. She then plugged a webcam into the laptop and used it to create those parts which were inherently impossible to find on youtube or any other site by filming herself playing them out, a procedure which caused a certain delay in the completion of the filters as Nerdanel dissolved into laughter watching her. Nevertheless, by the time the torrent did finish downloading, the Elves' part was also completed, and all that remained was to pass the two streams to Nerdanel's modified algorithms and fire it off.

"This is remarkable", said Galadriel. Back in the pigeon's cavern, the cooling fans of the main rack wound themselves up to full pelt as the multiple blades ground into their task. "The running error is consistently less than point one sigma, even on the most complex parts. This code is a work of art. You are a genius, Nerdanel."

"I know", said Nerdanel smugly. "Although you are also. Cower now, Jacksoff, and fear the attack of the Gruesome Twosome."

"I rather think he will", laughed Galadriel. "It will be a great deal more entertaining for us than it will be for him."

Somewhere on the other side of the world, a fat man blundered clumsily through a forest. Branches unseen in the night slapped him across the face; brambles tore at his pyjamas. His foot caught in a root and he fell helplessly on his face in the leaf-mould. A figure in British military officer's uniform loomed over him; he thrashed wildly in the darkness of his bedroom, struggling to free his tangled limbs from the sweat-soaked sheets...

The party picked their way across the devastated and flooded landscape towards the tower that rose before them, tall and sinister. Five men were ranged before its gate, observing their approach. They stood unmoving, with a slight stoop, their bent arms and clenched fists lending them a vague air of gorilla-like menace. Their sleeves were rolled above their elbows, ready for action; the dark water eddied around their black, waterproof boots. On their heads they wore the badge of their station, a square of white cloth knotted at the corners.

On a balcony up above there appeared the figure of an old man, tall, dignified, and clad in a long white robe. Standing at the rail, staff in hand, he looked sadly down at the men below. Then he drew himself up straight and tall and addressed the approaching band.

"I would like to apologise for the quality of this announcement", he called in tones of weary resignation.

The five men raised their heads and stood up a little straighter.

"Without! More! Ado!" they bellowed, their voices thick and indistinct, their speech unsynchronised. "The first item is a sketch about architects!"

"Wizards!" shouted the one on the end, cuffing his neighbour around the head.

"The Architect Sketch!" hooted the rest, ignoring him. "The Architect Sketch! The Architect Sketch!"

On the balcony up above, the old man rolled his eyes and spread his arms in a despairing gesture.

"Up there!" bellowed the men below, lifting their arms to point at him. "Up there! Up there! Up there!"

They lapsed into silence as the leader of the band came closer. "Gentlemen!" he called in a commanding voice. "We have two basic suggestions..."

"Up there! Up there!" burst out the five again, as if their silence had been a mere pause for breath. "Up there!"

"Shut up!" yelled the old man on the balcony.

The leader inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Gentlemen..." he began again, but was immediately drowned out by a further chorus of "Up there!"

The old man stepped back inside the tower, then reappeared with a bucket of water which he poured on the heads of those below.

"Now. Who disturbs me at this time?" he asked plaintively. Smoke began to issue from the tower high above.

"That is just the sort of blinkered philistine pig-ignorance I would expect from you non-creative garbage!" replied the man below.

The smoke became thicker and blacker. Flames licked out of the upper windows. A small turret sagged dangerously sideways.

"I'm sorry you feel like that", said the old man in tones of utmost reasonableness, "but we did want a block of flats..."

"I wouldn't become a freemason now if you went down on your lousy, stinking, purulent knees and begged me!" screamed the man on the ground.

A muffled explosion shook the tower. Bits fell off. The party scattered as a heavy glass ball crashed to the ground in their midst.

"It opens doors, I tell you", muttered their leader as he picked it up.

The dark, tall, stern-faced man in the expensive suit loomed intimidatingly over the much shorter figure standing before him in a leather trenchcoat several sizes too large for him. "Mister Baggins!" he declared, removing his shades with a dramatic gesture. "I do believe this task is appointed to you!"

The wind plucked at the old man's tattered garments as he stood on the edge of the precipice. Smoke and fog rolled up from the unguessable depths and swirled about the narrow bridge that spanned the chasm, its far end invisible in the murk. Drops of moisture settled on his eyelashes and bedewed his beard. Hearing some sound, he wiped his hand across his face and with narrowed eyes peered into the gloom.

On the other side, a vague and sinister form showed faintly in the mist, gradually becoming more solid, a patch of fog blackened by a menacing shadow that seemed to throw out wings of darkness about it. In the middle of the shadow flickered an orange tongue of fire. Slowly the nameless horror moved towards the bridge.

"Halt!" cried the old man. "Who would cross the bridge of death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see."

A threatening rumble rolled across the chasm in reply.

"What... is your name?" the old man called.

The monster gave tongue, stuttering with rage and frustration as it realised that it could not answer. An unseen force seized it, and a hideous roar burst from its mouth as it was hurled into the abyss.

The old man looked around him, his gaze seeking his companions hidden in the fog. "Fly, you fools!" he exhorted the unseen band. "Fly, with the swiftness of a swallow!"

"Is that an African or a European swallow?" came a voice out of the mist.

"What? I don't know that! ...Aaaarrrggghh!!!" screamed the old man as he was hurled into the chasm in his turn.

The slim, blonde woman raised her arms against the sky, flickering in and out of negative like someone being shot by a Dalek; two small figures on the ground before her watched in silent awe. "We have done strawberries!" she screamed, her voice heavy with electronic distortion. "Now I will show you how to defend yourself against a man... armed... with a BANANA!! Squad... Camp it... UP!"

The sound slowed and slurred into silence; the flickering hummed to a halt half way between light and dark. Another figure strode into view, clad in the uniform of a British colonel; a woman again, radiantly blonde, commandingly tall, aristocratically elegant, beautiful beyond description, terrifying with an aura of unanswerable authority. She raised her arm and pointed her swagger stick at the trembling three frozen in fear before her.

"Stop that!" she snapped. "It's silly."

She turned her head to face the camera, and in conspiratorial tones added, "A little suspect, too, I think."

"For fuck's sake!" the fat man burst out, pausing the video on his computer and slamming his fist down on his desk. "Even the original master copies have got it! What the fuck is going on? Who is that bloody woman?!"

A soft, clear voice sounded from behind him.

"I am Galadriel."

His chair skidded out from beneath him as he leapt up in shock. His leap was cut short as his legs came into contact with the edge of the desk; off balance, he fell backwards onto the chair which was no longer there, and crashed to the floor on his back, flailing his limbs like an adipose inverted crab. A tall, blonde figure stood looking down at him with an expression of faint amusement.

"What... how... The fuck!" he spluttered, floundering out from beneath the desk and hauling himself to his feet. "What are you doing in my office? How did you get in here?" Pulling himself together slightly, he grabbed the phone and punched out a number. "Security!" he shouted into the receiver. "My office, now!"

Calmly, the intruder picked a bunch of keys off the desk, strolled over to the door and locked it from the inside, leaving the key in the lock. "Relax", she said, turning back to face the man. "I need some information, first..."

"Information? What bloody information?" he retorted indignantly. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

A safe was set into one wall of the office; Galadriel walked over to it and began to spin the dial. "Just the basic facts", she said. The door swung open and she began extracting the contents of the safe, examining items one by one and then discarding them on the floor.

"Will you fucking stop that!" The fat man rushed over and attempted to pull her away from the safe. He might as well have tried to grapple a tree. Galadriel continued to inspect things and throw them away as if he was not there.

"You are zorry", she said, "and you are noh strong."

Galadriel picked up a set of DVDs and flicked through them, reading the handwritten titles. "Excellent", she said. The fat man made a frantic grab for them. She evaded him effortlessly and held them out of his reach. "Now I can destroy your third, unreleased Hobbit film in the same action as I destroy the previous two."

"Why are you doing this?" screeched the man helplessly.

"Your regard for money is many orders of magnitude greater than your regard for the truth", said Galadriel coldly. "And you do not think it matters. In that you are nothing exceptional by the standards of your world, and the matters of your world are not my concern. But when your disrespect for the truth impinges on my world, then it is a matter for my concern indeed. A matter of very great concern, consonant with the enormity of the evil your ridiculous fabrications have wreaked."

"There are looney fans and looney fans, but you take the fucking biscuit", growled the man. Retreating behind the desk, he picked up the phone again and punched the redial button. "Where the fuck are security?" he yelled into the handset. "Get them up here now!"

"They are on their way", a female voice with a slight acccent that he could not place sounded in the earpiece. "They will be with you as soon as they can. But they have rather a long way to come. The lifts are not working, and the new health and safety regulations will not allow anyone who eats more than fifteen doughnuts a day to use the stairs."

"What?!" he spluttered, incredulous.

"They are on their way to the Ohakea Air Force base to see if they can borrow a helicopter. One of them has a cousin who is a pilot", the voice continued. "They are going to try coming in via the roof. If they land a helicopter on it they will probably have little choice."

A movement caught his eye. He looked up. Galadriel was holding an inline phone socket on the end of a flying lead which apparently emerged out of thin air somewhere behind her. The cable of the desk phone was plugged into it and Galadriel was idly swinging the hanging arc back and forth. With her thumb on the catch she flicked the plug out of the socket. There was a click in the earpiece as the cable came free, and the line went dead.

"Such a denial was to be expected", Galadriel said. "But the harm caused by your idiotic films is real, whether you believe it or not. It is, accordingly, important that you should understand this, and understand it sufficiently clearly that there may be no doubt."

She walked around the desk and extended her arm. "This will show you where it hurts."

The fat man's face contorted. Raising his hands to his head, he stumbled dizzily backwards, tripped over the overturned chair behind him and fell clumsily onto his back. Galadriel's voice sounded as if from a great distance, yet clearly, echoing in his head above the roaring repetitious rumbling drumming in his ears.

"You, in your ignorance and greed, would compel an entire world - my world - of people born and yet unborn to suffer for eternity under a load which you cannot yourself endure even for a second. This I will not permit. It was that ignorance alone that shielded you from sharing in the suffering you created, and with it gone your shield is lost also. You cannot forget; never again can you evade answering for anything you may do which impinges on my world. Nor will you do anything of that kind. Should you doubt my words sufficiently to try, the mere attempt will prove your doubts unfounded."

He closed his eyes, but still Galadriel's voice rang in the darkness of his mind. "You will not forget."

The rumbling grew louder and ever louder, filling his consciousness and driving all thought before it; with dreadful certainty he knew that he indeed would not forget. No matter how hard he worked to disbelieve and deny what had happened, still there would always be some splinter of his subconscious that would not be denied, that would remember, that would watch him and cast him back into that awful pit of which even a glimpse had been more than he could bear. He was held forever prisoner in the chains of his own mind.

Galadriel's footsteps crossed the office. The latch rattled. The door clicked and closed.

Galadriel stepped back into the living room of the cottage, a broad smile on her face and a set of DVDs held triumphantly in one hand. From the open door into the kitchen came the sound of a spoon clinking in a teapot. Galadriel followed the sound, to be met by Nerdanel holding out a cup of tea.

"You have acquired the taste for tea in full measure, have you not?" said Galadriel, accepting the cup. "Thank you. Your performance on the phone was perfect. The accent gave it just that extra touch of oddness to convince him that he was helpless to escape from the situation. I was a little concerned that he might have sufficient arrogance to maintain enough doubt to delude himself that it had not been real, but there is no danger of that now."

"It is wonderful stuff. I cannot understand how I managed to get by without it", said Nerdanel. She indicated the discs. "Those are all we need, then?"

"All we need and more", Galadriel assented. "Not only the unreleased third film, but also footage of the actors playing the fool on set and partying drunkenly in costume after the day's shooting. With this extra material, the edited result will be even more effective."

"That is good to hear", replied Nerdanel. "I will admit that I have indeed come to like this place considerably better than I expected, but all the same I would rather like to get home."

"I thought you were enjoying the change", said Galadriel.

"Oh, I am. To get away from that scene of turmoil and disaster and be free of all cares for a while has been a tremendous relief. But the more I rest the more I find myself thinking of the good things I have left behind and forgetting the bad. I can accept the loss of... of him... this experience with this world's moving pictures has taught me more about the nature and power of illusion, and I feel less foolish about having been deceived into loving a falsehood, a shell that was only ever a cover for his true nature. But my sons, they still live, and they are no illusions. I want them back, Galadriel. I want to disentangle them from the web of evil that has fallen upon us. There is still some hope of that."

Galadriel seated herself by Nerdanel's side and put an arm tenderly around her shoulders. "Oh, Nerdanel..."

Nerdanel looked at her expressionlessly. "You are going to tell me that my hope is unfounded", she said, and looked away again.

"I am going to tell you that I think it is unfounded", said Galadriel softly. "The coming five hundred years will be a time unlike any we have known; a dark time, a time of deeds both great and terrible, a time that shapes the whole of the future of Arda. It is your sons who are to drive it. And the record of their deeds forms a large part of Tolkien's work. Many of the points of support on which our reality now depends are in this time. It is highly constrained; it would take very little stress around those points of support to disrupt it beyond repair, and I fear there is little we may do."

Nerdanel looked back to Galadriel again, this time with the beginnings of a spark in her eyes. "I am glad that you say we", she said.

"I cannot say otherwise", said Galadriel. "Your hope is dangerous, and it is I who created the danger, for it was I who gave you the hope. So it is I who must keep the danger from coming to pass. We may both come to wish that I had never given you the hope."

"I think that is most unlikely", said Nerdanel composedly.

"Do you?" said Galadriel. "You would stand and watch one of your sons die, knowing that you could save him, and restraining yourself because I tell you this must be? You would allow your sons to live or die at my bidding, for that is what it may mean, and not wish that we had never met? Have you not already suffered enough, in heeding the less painful command to let your sons go, yet you willingly expose yourself to the chance that you may have to heed the command to let them die?"

"What if I did not heed it?"

"In that case I would give you no choice but to heed it."

"And should I go on my own, and seek to save my sons without you?"

"Then you would not succeed."

"By which you mean, that you would see to it that I did not succeed."

"I do." Galadriel sighed. "Have no illusions about me, Nerdanel. To associate with me is to lose everything. I will take more than you think possible. I am the worst person you will ever meet."

"Gala, stop being such a fucking twat", came a voice from the top of the door. There was a flutter of wings and a crash of cutlery as the pigeon landed on the table with her usual appalling thump in the manner of a feathered meteorite. She looked up at the two Elves. "Don't listen to her, Nellie. She said that to me when we first met. It was horseshit then and it's horseshit now. Being with Gala is the best thing ever. She's the sweetest love in the world." She hopped up onto Galadriel's shoulder and stuck her beak in her ear. "Even if she is a stupid cunt sometimes. To herself, usually", she said at a distance of five millimetres from Galadriel's eardrum.

"Oh, birdie, birdie", laughed Galadriel, lifting her hand to run her finger down the bird's back. "You know you're a special case. Like me..."

"Yeah, you are a special case", interrupted the pigeon. "Look, there's like three paragraphs total about you or something and sweet FA about Nellie. We've got way plenty time to hook up with the Screaming Seven, they all fucking die anyway so let Nellie make the most of them while she can and they're never all together so if we stick with the ones in the background we won't fuck anything up. Ney prob." She pulled her beak out of Galadriel's ear and looked at Nerdanel. "See? It's easy when you've got feathers." She snuggled down on Galadriel's shoulder, fluffed out her breast feathers and jiggled her beak into them.

"Birdie, you little sod", exclaimed Galadriel.

"Well someone had to say it", said the pigeon. "Knowing you you'd sit there for the whole five hundred years screwing over whether to say it or not while Nellie's mind was gnawed by the cankering tooth of mystery. Better have it out at once."

Galadriel rolled her eyes at the pigeon, who wobbled her beak in reply. She looked over at Nerdanel, who was caught between tears at the content of what the pigeon had said and inability to resist giggling at the way she had said it. "I am sorry. It is true... almost. Maglor survives, but the others..."

The two Elves reached out to each other; Nerdanel buried her face in Galadriel's shoulder as they embraced. "At least there is... one left to me", she said with half a sob.

It was the pigeon who eventually broke the silence, with the seemingly utterly irrelevant remark that she was thinking about Terry's trousers catching fire at the beach.

Galadriel spluttered. "You silly bird... oh, dear. I see what you mean, but the condition it created would not be sufficient to meet necessity. Other courses may be more sure, and certainly of far lesser danger; and from here, with Arda in stasis, we cannot so much as evaluate the possibilities, let alone act on them, for it is like Patricia looking for the right gate."

"Yeah, but you piss all over her and Korzenowski put together."

"The analogy will only stretch so far, birdie."

"Far enough. Why d'you think the gates had those little rain shelters over them? They knew you were coming..."

Galadriel spluttered at the revolting image.

"Would you mind letting me know what in all Arda you two are on about?" put in Nerdanel.

Galadriel quickly caught the pigeon's beak between her fingers before she could open it. "Birdie thinks she has seen a way to stabilise reality around one particular point so that we could intervene there without collapsing everything. In theory she is right, but her idea is not one I would care to try. It is possible that some other course may be open to us, but it must wait until we return home before I can be sure." She released the pigeon's beak, and tapped her admonishingly on the tip of it with one finger. "And you, keep your great beak shut until I have decided, or you will induce perturbations which will mean I have to start again."

"And Nerdanel, keep your flapping ears shut", supplied that elf. "But they have already flapped. Flying shitehawk here thinks we can avert the death of one of my sons without bringing the world down about our ears. You have grave doubts. And you will not tell me because my own thoughts will be part of the reality that we are seeking to change, and the problem cannot be solved iteratively. I am right, am I not?"

"Even simple cases do not converge usefully quickly", Galadriel explained. "That is, if they converge at all, and do not become chaotic, which would certainly happen in a case as complex as this. It must be solved analytically, and to communicate it to you would introduce discontinuities on the time axis that would prevent an analytical solution. I must work on the solution in isolation, and having obtained it, cannot even then communicate it without rendering it instantly invalid."

Nerdanel did not at first respond, but digested Galadriel's answer without speaking. Then, without preamble, she uttered an extremely rude word, got up from her chair and walked out of the room. The rattle of the latch on the outside door sounded a few seconds later.

Galadriel and the pigeon sat in silence, the pigeon gently preening Galadriel's hair while Galadriel stroked her chest. They remained like this for some time. Then, suddenly, the pigeon nuzzled Galadriel hard in the cheek, kicked off from her shoulder and shot out of the open window in a flurry of wings.

A small stream ran through the cottage garden, its deep, steep-sided channel bridged at one point by a flat slab of stone. On this stone in the gathering twilight sat Nerdanel, her legs hanging over the edge, her hands to her face, her tears mingling with the flowing water.

The pigeon alighted on the stone next to her and hopped up into her lap. Nerdanel lowered her hands and stroked the bird's back, staring unseeingly at the eddies in the stream.

"So cold, birdie", she said in half a whisper. "How can she be so cold? The death of my sons as a mathematical problem... And I, their mother, am the one who is not even allowed to ask questions..."

"One of 'em", said the pigeon. "I'm not, now, either, and it was my idea..."

"You know what I mean, birdie", said Nerdanel.

The pigeon shrugged, a gesture for which the avian skeleton is far better suited than the anthropoid. "Well... sort of, but it's not intuitive. Family isn't the big deal with pigeons that it is with Elves. And it's kind of hard to dig conventional Elvish thinking when you've been with the one Elf who makes everything a matter of mathematical analysis since you were eight weeks old."

"Eight weeks old?" said Nerdanel, surprised out of her bleak thoughts. "You were barely out of the nest?"

"Yup. Still squeaking", said the pigeon. "Mind you, so was Gala, more or less. Barely came up to her mother's knee."

"That is quite remarkable, and also extremely strange", said Nerdanel. "When you were both so young, and on different worlds, how did you come to meet at all?"

"Dunno. Gala did it", said the bird with another shrug. "I went to sleep in my own nest and woke up in hers. We both wanted someone to talk to. Gala set it up so that that would bring us together. Don't ask me how, she's way better at that shit than me."

Nerdanel contemplated the pigeon's words as she stared silently at the stream, thinking back to her conversation with Galadriel in the garden in Tirion. This I have faced since I was scarce old enough to walk, she had said... Nerdanel had failed to grasp the full extent of her meaning at the time. She understood better now. Galadriel's power, so awesome in scope and so perilous to use, was not something she had developed or acquired or learned; it had been a part of her being from birth, something she had never been without. She had never known a time when she did not have to watch her every thought, analyse her every deed, weigh her every desire and impulse against the possibility of inadvertent calamity in the pitiless, impersonal scales of mathematics. For the preservation of reality to be the overwhelming primary consideration in everything was the only normality Galadriel had ever known. Other Elves had the freedom to respond to their emotional commitments, family loyalty, and love, but Galadriel did not; she could not afford to; and for her, that was normal. To walk all your life on a tightrope, never having known the feel of solid ground...

And other thoughts swam into the spotlight of Nerdanel's consciousness... That stupid oath that her sons had sworn, dooming themselves to the Everlasting Darkness if they abandoned their futile pursuit of the unattainable. What good had the freedom to follow their loyalty done them except to irreversibly blight their lives, beyond even the power of the Valar to help? As Galadriel had said - and Nerdanel had known - only Il├║vatar could release them from their self-imposed chains. And yet she and this pigeon still dared to offer to try and at least loosen them... Nerdanel bit her tongue; would she not be better to swallow her pain and let this hope go? Did she have any right to accept such a perilous offer?

She let her gaze drift back towards the pigeon, and noticed something else. "You are being predated, birdie", she said, more to distract herself than out of any thought that the pigeon might really need a warning.

"Yeah, I know. 'S been doing it for the last five minutes", the pigeon said. "Stupid bugger thinks I haven't noticed. Like I'm fucking blind or something."

Neither of them moved as the cat continued to creep ever closer to the pigeon, the tip of its tail twitching as it inched forward, flat to the ground in deadly concentration. Its rear end humped upwards as the hind legs pushed themselves beneath the body, and swayed slowly from side to side. Of a sudden, it pounced; there was a clack as its jaws closed round the pigeon's neck; with a howl of pain it twisted madly to reverse its leap, and shot away as if a hundred lurchers were on its tail. Two broken teeth bounced off the stone slab and landed in the stream. The pigeon remained as motionless as if nothing had happened.

"There's one cunt who'll not be after pigeons any more", she said calmly.

Nerdanel laughed in spite of herself. "You are a little sod, aren't you", she said.

"Sho' ting, bro", said the bird.

For an indefinite time they sat in silence, as Nerdanel's mind was soothed by the gentle trickling of the stream, a line of lone sound across the overarching greater silence. An immense peace and stillness descended as the sun, already below the further hills, sank below the rim of the world; and still they sat.

Nerdanel got to her feet, and turned towards the cottage. "Coming?" she asked the pigeon.

Galadriel met them as they stepped into the living room, her hair shimmering in the light of the fire she had kindled in the hearth. Nerdanel began to speak, but Galadriel gently silenced her with a hand to her lips and led her across to the sofa. In the warmth of the fire, they settled themselves into the curiously lumpy cushions and their arms tightened around each other in a wordless embrace.

Ai, poor Nerdanel. It is hard for her... but what can I do? What is, is what must be - Galadriel x

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