A BRIGHT AND SHINING boat was sailing towards the Fair Isle.
He himself had seen boats before of course. He'd seen all manner of boats--some made of tied together dead trees, some carved out of hollow tree trunks; some were tree bark, others hard old hide or thin-planked shells. Some of the crafts he'd seen over the years were paddled along with the aid of only the sailors' bare hands; others had used oars of various sorts and some had had sails, drab or colourful. Some of the sailors in those far gone boats had come to conquer, some to explore and settle; others had ventured here just out of a simple curiosity to see what lay beneath the haze on the western horizon. Some, a fortunate few, had washed up on the shores of the Fair Isle, battered by war or storm, more dead than alive. They were gifts from the sea.
He himself had seen them all, enjoyed them all, fought with some, and laughed with others. He himself had even, long ago, been curious of where they'd come from, and how they lived where they'd lived. On occasion, he had even encountered, rattling around inside his skull, dim memories of walking on their sunny hills, wading through their bright rivers and streams, and eating the salty flesh that had feasted upon their green, sun-washed fields. But the recollections were of such a long, long ago time that they seemed more dreams than memories. Now he himself lived elsewhere. He was a part of the Fair Isle. He'd grown roots.
* * * * *
HIS GRACE, FITZROY ALLAN MacIain, 35th Duke of Dalraida stood at the bow of his cream-coloured, schooner-rigged yacht in front of the spread of brilliant white sails. Jocko was in the stern, at the helm. The champions sat, in their man forms, at several spots amid ships, polishing their accoutrements. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the sun, bright as fire, burned in the eastern skies. To the north, south, and east, the horizon was lined with darkening clouds. To the west, the Fair Isle stood high upon its sharp rocks, behind its secrets, surrounded in mist and sea spray and the sounds of crashing surf.
As the yacht swept through the intricate passage between the jagged rocks of the island's outer reef, the Duke placed the newly repaired winged helm upon his head. The winds were gusting in cold from the east and blowing the yacht hard towards the lee shore of the Fair Isle. His Grace had wrapped himself in his thick, bright red, woollen cloak. It both protected him from the sea's chill and made him more easily seen by those of the Fair who were watching.
As the yacht broke though the surf of the reef, Jocko watched the water ahead. There were more rocks ahead just under the surface, rocks which boiled the water in a rage. To a helmsman, the sea was life and the sea was death. The sea had many colours, which themselves could lead the way: silver-white the sea as it crashed asunder on the hidden threats, deep-green the sea as it rushed between sudden sea-bottom ravines and then roiled up to smash itself to pieces on the rocky shore, dark and black the sea as it circled and swept and whirled into the holes that stabbed down deep into its pitted bed. Jocko knew the colours. Jocko knew the way. He saw a stretch of greyer water to the starboard quarter, a way ruffled by the wind, a way through the violence. He called for the mainsail to drop, and, making way under the stay-sail only, swung his helm and muttered a short prayer.
* * * * *
NICELY DONE, THOUGHT HE himself, a bright and shining boat, with a bold captain.
* * * * *
THE WAY HELD ITS own and swept the boat under and then narrowly past a three-hundred-foot cliff of limestone rock. Seabirds nested in the cracks and on the ledges of the cliff, staining its face here and there with teary streaks of white guano thousands of years thick. The yacht flowed under the cliffs, its main mast dwarfed by the Isles' tall ramparts. Once past them, Jocko saw the mouth of a bay, perhaps half-a-mile wide, open off the port bow. A white sandy beach lay in the bay's crook. The water there was mirror-smooth, the sea wind and the surf having blown themselves apart on the headland and the cliffs. Jocko swung the yacht to port, into the bay, and the stay-sail fell slack and empty.
"No motor, Jocko."
"Aye, Your Grace, no motor," he replied, adding in a mutter, "The damn thing'd never work here anyways."
The momentum of the boat carried them slowly into the bay. Looking over the side, Jocko could see bottom. It was sand, clear and white and shadowed with fish, some of them very large indeed. When the yacht was twenty yards offshore, Jocko brought the helm about. The vessel turned and lost its way. One of the champions picked up the anchor and dropped it over the side.
* * * * *
HE HIMSELF WATCHED AS the yachtsmen secured their boat and launched another smaller craft. He counted seven large men. Now this was beginning to stir his interest; this was hardly boring at all, in fact. One of them looked familiar. One of them looked like a face he'd seen before. One of the dream faces. The man was tall--taller than the others by a head. He could see that as they beached their launch. The tall one was dressed in the old way of a noble or one of the Fair folk, high and bright. This was interesting enough to wiggle toes over. Then he himself saw clearly the faces and manner of those on the beach and he set to quivering as if he was standing in a gale force wind.
* * * * *
"STAND STILL," INSTRUCTED THE Duke. "Make no sudden moves, show empty hands, bare arms, and clear faces. You may be at home but you've been away long and may seem to be strangers, so stand ye still."
His Grace threw back his cloak revealing his armour--a shirt of shining silver scales. A thick, gold torque hung at his neck. A belt of heavy gold links, wrapping his waist twice round, carried only a brown ivory-handled dirk in a red leather sheath. The Duke wore soft, green leather gloves worked in with flowing swirls of gold wire thread. His trews were soft, brushed, black leather. His boots were made for riding as were the golden spurs strapped to their heels. His hair hung loose and pure white, down past his shoulders to the middle of his back. His helm shone silver and the brilliant white feathers of its sea eagle wings fluttered gently in the soft breeze.
The champions were dressed as archaically as His Grace, in earthen-coloured, thick wool cloaks, heavy-soled sandals, and green kilts. As they landed, each of them threw back his cloak to show that his belt was empty. They wore their most attractive armour for the homecoming: one had a shirt of silver rings, two wore what appeared to be the silver and gold breastplates of Roman Legionnaires, one wore an iron-studded leather vest, and another wore a vest of thick, moulded, boiled ox-hide decorated with coins hammered flat and embossed laminations of gold foil. The champions wore their hair--blonde, russet, chestnut, ash grey, and wiry black--in queues tied about with thick, gold wire. Three of their faces were burned dark brown by ages of sea-blown wind, one's was golden fair with sprinkles of freckles, the last face was as black and shiny as the sea under starlight. Some wore moustaches, long and curling, others wore short beards; the black face was bare and bore a recent scar across the left cheek. They all stood tall and still behind the Duke as the water lapped gently at their sandaled feet.
Jocko was the only member of the crew in modern dress, in his almost ever-present, almost white, fisherman's knit sweater, his once green, thorn-proof coat, and rubber Wellingtons. He had the champions carry the launch up the beach, and then secured it with a line around a heavy rock.
"Those who watch have seen enough of us to know who we are," the Duke said. "We come!" he called out loudly to the rocks above the beach and then led the way towards a path that climbed the cliff.
Fitzroy Allan MacIain's armour was heavy, his cloak damp. His knees protested the climb with each step and were, he admitted, older perhaps than they should be. Clouds of seabirds, disturbed in their rocky nests, fluttered angrily over the party as it walked up what was more goat track than path. The champions smiled and laughed at the birds; their knees knew no pain.
An hour later, Jocko collapsed upon a field of cropped green turf at the top of the cliff. His Grace and the champions had reached the top twenty minutes before and were standing beneath the spreading branches of an old rowan tree that was perched on the edge of the cliff's brink.
"Water," he begged as he climbed to his feet and staggered to the others. One of them offered a flask of water.
"Take just a little, manling."
Jocko looked up at the still unfamiliar voice of the freckled, blonde face. Each of the champions were strong and fit and looked more than middle-aged, but only just. The one who spoke did so in an antique Gaelic dialect. Jocko sipped the cool water slowly.
"Someone's carved a face in that tree," Jocko remarked as he looked past the others to the rowan.
They looked up but saw only bark.