The Chieftain (Chapter 11)

On the ridge above them, Connor saw the outline of five warriors, clearly visible in the moonlight. Barely breathing, he glanced at the row of children flattened against the side of the hill and prayed they would keep silent.

Through the tall grass, Connor watched the five warriors, willing them to leave. They were close enough that he could make out their voices in the quiet night.

"The MacDonald chieftain was supposed to be here," one of them said. "Our reward will be great if we're the ones who find him."

The MacLeods knew he would be here. As Connor had suspected, one of his own had given him up. But which one?

Connor held his breath as the men turned north and followed the path in the direction of Trotternish Castle. He waited several long minutes after they disappeared before rising to his hands and knees for a better look.

"Are they gone?" Malcom asked.

"Hush!" Connor ordered when he heard the low rumble of the warriors' voices above him. "They're returning."

A short time later, the MacLeod warriors were once again standing above them.

"We should look down this hill," one of them said.

Connor tensed. Malcom was not a trained warrior, which meant Connor would have to take all five MacLeods himself.

"Ach, no, let's go back to the boat," another of the men said. "I have a jug of whiskey and a warm lass waiting for me at home."

Connor prayed the others would listen to him.

"We'll leave after we look down here," the first man said.

Connor heard the familiar swish of their claymores swinging through the tall grass as the five men walked down the hill. After signaling to the family to stay low, he ran across the side of the hill in a low crouch. He had to move fast to circle behind the men before they stumbled upon the family's hiding spot.

When he reached the path, he scooped up a handful of stones and climbed a large tree. As soon as he was out of sight in the branches, he hurled the stones, sending them bouncing up the path. Then he climbed out onto a thick limb that hung over the path and waited. If he did not hear the men coming toward him soon, he would have to shout to draw their attention. He smiled when he heard running feet.

He let the first three warriors pass and dropped on the last two, driving his dirk into one and then the other in quick succession. Before the others turned around to see what happened, Connor had his claymore in his hands. Three at once could be difficult. He was pleased when one charged him. With a swift stroke, he blocked the attacker's sword, then swung in a circle and drove his blade deep into the man's side.

The remaining two used their advantage and acted in concert, one coming at him from his left and the other from his right. Connor picked up the sword of one of the fallen men and fought them back using both swords. More MacLeod warriors could come looking for these at any moment. Damn, he needed to end this quickly.

He dove to the side as one of the men swung at him, and the blade glanced off his arm instead of piercing his chest. As he came up, Connor pulled the dirk from his boot. His opponent's arm was still extended with the force of his swing when Connor sank his dirk between the man's exposed ribs.

The last warrior charged at him with a roar before Connor could recover and block the attack with his claymore. He felt the wind of the man's sword on his back as he dropped to the ground. Before he could get up, his opponent raised his blade over his head and brought it down with all his force. Connor managed to roll to the side in time to avoid being split in two, but the blade caught his thigh.

Connor was on his feet again, and he had only one opponent left. When he could, Connor showed mercy. But this was not one of those times. He swung his great two-handed sword in deadly, rhythmic arcs, forcing his opponent back and back again.

Finally, the MacLeod warrior swung with all his might into Connor's injured leg. Connor had anticipated the move and jumped over the blade. When his opponent's sword met with no resistance, the force of his swing threw him off balance long enough for Connor to deal him a deathblow and end it.

As he leaned on his sword to get his breath back, Connor noticed that the family had crept out of their hiding place and were watching from the tall grass. He signaled for them to stay where they were and started dragging the dead bodies off the path. If the other MacLeod warriors came this way and found their comrades, they would be far more vigilant in their search.

"Just keep your children quiet and off the path," Connor told Malcom when he offered to help.

By the time he had dragged the five dead MacLeods into the bushes, his head was spinning.

"I must return to the castle, but ye should be safe if ye stay hidden," he told the family. "Don't go back to the cottage until it's daylight and ye can be sure that they've sailed away."

"Let me take care of your wounds before ye go," the woman said.

Connor only now realized that his sleeve was soaked with blood. He remembered being struck in the leg as well. That would explain why he was light-headed.

"Help me bind them, and I'll be on my way," he said.

Using Connor's dirk, she cut two strips from the bottom of her skirts. She tied the first around his arm while he tied the second strip around the gash on his thigh.

"'Tis a long way to the castle, and the path is overgrown and difficult to follow in the dark," Malcom said. "I'd better take ye."

"I'll manage," Connor said. "Stay with your wife and children."

"Mind ye don't enter the faery glen," Malcom said. "The path circles around it. Don't be tempted to cut through it to make your journey shorter."

Faeries were the least of his worries.

"If ye do find yourself in the glen, ye must have a token to leave for the faeries," the wife said. She reached into her pocket and brought out a stone that glittered in the moonlight. "Sometimes a gift will appease them, though ye can never tell with faeries."

Connor did not want to insult her, so he thanked her and put the stone in the leather bag tied to his belt. He had miles to travel, and he was anxious to be on his way.

"I see now why they say ye are the hope of our clan," the woman said. "May God watch over ye. We need hope."